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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Return of Taliban destabilizes region: conflict in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan

The return of Taliban in Kabul is already extracting costs in the region. While inside Afghanistan itself time may slowly but steadily be moving back into the stone age, happenings there can be glossed over as internal affairs of that country. The violence, however, has already spilled over into neighbouring countries. Pakistan, and many would agree rightly, is bearing the maximum brunt of it till now. However, other countries have not been spared.

Recently, there were reports, not in the least unclaimed by the ISIS-Khorasan group itself about shooting missiles into neighbouring Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities, however, have denied such reports. Now, it is neighbouring Tajikistan that is engulfed in violence, especially in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, which borders Afghanistan.

The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is the Tajik part of the Badakhshan region, the other half of which lies in Afghanistan. The Pyanj river divides the two; GBAO borders on its east with China, as well as with Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan in the north and west. Hence, the region is quite strategically located, though having almost no fertile land, all of it being mountainous. It was the centre of the brutal Tajik civil war of 1992-1997, during which time it also declared secession from Tajikistan. Peace was achieved by granting the region greater autonomy.

Tensions have been simmering in this mountainous region since November of last year when security forces killed a 29-year-old man, Gulbiddin Ziyobekov. This spurred local dissatisfaction, and by May 16, fighting started. Government forces backed by helicopters moved to crush local resistance. Since then, almost 30 people have died, including local leaders, the internet has been banned, and a number of activists taken into custody.

Reasons for tensions in the region are manifold. There is a general sense of neglect from the centre, unemployment, lack of opportunities and infrastructure in the region. Furthermore, the representatives of Dushanbe are perceived to be derisive of the local Pamiri population, which has allowed local self-styled leaders to spring up, perpetuating the friction between officials and local unofficial leaders. But in this cauldron, there are several interesting twists.

For one, in spite of the general neglect and backwardness of the place, GBAO is rich in minerals. However, mining rights have been handed over by the Tajik government of President Emamoli Rahmanov to the Chinese. This, much like in Balochistan, has been a source of local angst. Furthermore, this is the place where the Chinese plan to build their military base, to keep an eye on Afghanistan.

On the other hand, since the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, there have been several clashes on the Afghan-Tajik border. Even before the Taliban takeover, cadres of Tajik Taliban had been manning the border on the Afghan side with sporadic clashes. Even as tensions simmered, the Islamic State Khorasan claimed responsibility for an attack on May 8 this year inside GBAO. Then on May 15 again, there were reports of clashes on the Afghan-Tajik border.

While attention has largely been focussed Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, this part of the region demands attention no less. Here the ambitions of a number of regional powers clash – Tajikistan, Russia, China, Afghanistan. Coming soon after the unprecedented uprisings in Kazakhstan earlier this year, watched eagerly across the region, the authorities, in spite of heavy-handed operations, have reason to worry.

During the Tajik civil war, GBAO had declared itself independent of Tajikistan. The civil war itself was a by-product of the Afghan jihad. The spectre of a repetition haunts the Tajik security forces. In Kazakhstan, radical elements had infiltrated what began as a popular movement. The same can be said about GBAO. Of all Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, it is Tajikistan alone that has not welcomed the Taliban. And, anticipating the spillover of the Afghan chaos, Tajikistan had been fortifying its borders, shoring up security there, together with Russia and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

In fact, Tajikistan gave a huge snub to then Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, when during his visit to Dushanbe he was told in no clear terms that the Taliban had to address Tajik concerns inside Afghanistan and form a broad-based government for recognition. Tajikistan then went on to confer its highest honour on the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, whose son at that time was leading the lone resistance in the Panjshir Valley to the Taliban.

Currently, much of the Tajik National Resistance Front of Afghanistan are based in Tajikistan. While many of the demands of the people of GBAO are legitimate, yet, the current spate of violence may not be all to do with them. There is reason to believe that the unrest may not remain limited to GBAO. The Tajik authorities, thus, have their task cut out for them – to not allow the Afghan chaos to spill over into their territory, while also addressing the concerns of the GBAO region.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with a modified headline.)

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