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Drug trade, violence tear at Tajik society

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Recent deadly clashes in eastern Tajikistan between government forces and rebels underscore the disruptive influence of drug trafficking throughout the impoverished Central Asian nation, analysts say.

Fighting between Tajik security forces and armed groups close to the border with Afghanistan ebbed this week, after authorities offered amnesty to fighters in the semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region — a key route for narcotics from Afghanistan.

"With the withdrawal of NATO troops, we are going to see more instability," says Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, an economic research firm. "I think drug trafficking is going to be more of a problem in the future, and that makes Tajikistan very vulnerable."

NATO combat forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Violence erupted in Gorno-Badakhshan after its security chief, Abdullo Nazarov, was killed July 21. His deputy, Tolib Ayombekov, was accused of leading a gang that carried out the slaying, as well as being involved in the smuggling of tobacco, gems and narcotics.

Mr. Ayombekov refused to surrender himself to Tajik authorities, claiming that Mr. Nazarov's death was the accidental result of a drunken brawl, according to local media.

A failed July 24 government operation to capture Mr. Ayombekov resulted in security forces battling men loyal to the deputy security chief in and around Gorno-Badakhshan's capital of Khorog.

Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon is likely to have used Mr. Nazarov's death as a pretext to exert control over the lawless region, which was given autonomy as part of a power-sharing deal following a civil war that claimed up to 100,000 lives from 1992 to 1997, analysts say.

"I am not sure the circle around Rahmon is shedding tears over this guy," says Zohra Ismail-Beben, an anthropologist at Indiana University who has written extensively on Tajikistan. "After all, [Mr. Nazarov] was part of the opposition during the civil war, and he was sent to a kind of thankless post. But it does provide a really good excuse and a perfect cover for a government looking to clean house."

Mr. Ayombekov's whereabouts are unknown.

Meanwhile, the Tajik government has said it has captured 40 militants, including eight Afghans, prompting Russian media to suggest that the Afghan Taliban were involved in the fighting.

But Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network says it's unlikely that the predominantly Sunni Taliban would have much in common with the Pamiri ethnic group that dominates the area and adheres to Shia Islam.

The "Pamiri and the Taliban ideology do not fit together at all," Mr. Ruttig says. "So if there are links, they have to do with drug trafficking and other illicit trade. And there, ideological differences do not matter much."

Ms. Ismail-Beben says the government has deliberately exaggerated an Islamist threat.

"Governments like President Rahmon's have bandied about the words 'terrorism' and 'Islamists' to essentially confuse the situation and in order to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community to get some space to maneuver and deal with opposition," Ms. Ismail-Beben says. "They know that governments in the West fear Islamists like a plague and use this to provide cover for their actions."

Domestic and international Pamiri activists have protested outside Tajik embassies in Washington, Moscow and London, accusing the Tajik government of targeting the Pamiri people.

However, Tajiks of Pamiri ethnicity are known to fight for the government forces deployed to the area.

Ms. Ismail-Beben says that although Mr. Ayombekov's men did fight for the Pamiris during the civil war and continue to provide local patronage, his criminal activities have split local opinion.

"On the one hand, they are drug dealers, which goes against the moral principles of many here," she says. "On the other hand, some are happy if they do some good in order to 'clean their money.' "

Ultimately, says Ms. Ismail-Beben, it is the Pamiri people in Gorno-Badakhshan who suffer most, caught in the crossfire between local criminals and the national authorities.

"They do not trust the government to do what a government is supposed to do," she says. "But it is not as if they flock to the likes of Ayombekov. After all, they are purveyors of destruction, too, creating an addiction that is reaching an epidemic."

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