OPERATION “THUNDERBOLT” FAILS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 129

The Tajik government’s Operation Thunderbolt has clearly fallen short of destroying the few remaining antigovernment armed groups. Those groups formed part of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the civil war, but–unlike the bulk of UTO’s forces–refused to disarm under the terms of the 1997 pacification agreement between the government and the opposition. That agreement’s slow and incomplete execution provided a continuing raison d’etre for these renegade groups.

On June 22, government troops launched Operation Thunderbolt against the detachments of Rahmon Sanginov and Mansur Muakkalov, which had in recent years been entrenched on the eastern outskirts of Dushanbe. On June 26, the government’s battle communique declared victory with the capture of two long-held rebel bases near Teppai-Samarkandi, some twelve kilometers east of Dushanbe. That and subsequent official communiques announced, however, that “mopping-up operations” would continue.

In its final accounting of Operation Thunderbolt, the government claimed to have killed thirty-six and captured sixty-six opposition fighters while losing nine killed and ten wounded. Few local observers take these figures seriously. By the same token, it is assumed that some of those officially reported as “captured fighters” are in fact opposition supporters who were arrested in recent days for political reasons or in noncombat situations. That suspicion seemed confirmed by a July 3 government communique announcing the “detention” of more than twenty oppositionists, without specific reference to combat. These, according to the communique, include a “close relative of Sanginov”–apparently a hint at hostage taking by the authorities.

By now it is clear that most rebels have slipped out of the planned encirclement. Thus far, government troops have only managed to push the two armed groups a mere ten or so kilometers further east from the capital. As a result, the Sanginov-Muakkalov force is now positioned near, or possibly within, the Kofarnihon district, a political stronghold of the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP), the legalized successor to the UTO. Since the official end of the civil war in 1997, the authorities have only rarely ventured into Kofarnihon, relying instead on ex-UTO leaders to defuse recurrent incidents and maintain a semblance of order there. The authorities are guessing that the Sanginov-Muakkalov force or part of it may now be entrenched in the Ramit Gorge, a traditional stronghold of UTO forces during the civil war.

Tajik government forces seem to have borrowed from the tactics used by the Russian army against Chechens. Operation Thunderbolt indiscriminately used artillery, armor, and attack helicopters against lightly armed rebels inside villages, causing considerable destruction of houses and infrastructure. Yet the government keeps silent about the casualties that it almost certainly inflicted on the civilian population in the course of this operation. In one rare, partial admission, a senior military official was quoted as arguing that “we had to act promptly and efficiently, therefore we had no choice but to employ artillery and aviation.”

As part of attempts to conceal the use of those heavy weapons, the government portrays Thunderbolt as an operation of the Internal Affairs Ministry. However, the combat hardware used is that of the Army, the elite Presidential Guard, and the Russian 201st division stationed for the most part in and around Dushanbe. While rumors about involvement of Russian troops in the operation have not been borne out, the question remains whether Russian military instructors, or tank and air crews, may have supported the government troops in the fighting.

On June 27–the anniversary of the 1997 pacification agreement, officially marked as Reconciliation Day–Rahmonov congratulated the people of Tajikistan on what he termed a successful implementation of that agreement. However, this latest outbreak of fighting–the most serious since 1997–reflects the agreement’s defective implementation, and in some respects its nonimplementation. Opposition politicians–formerly of the UTO, now of the IRP–who made their peace with the government are often threatened with violence, and some have been assassinated, by pro-government elements which may or may not be out of the government’s control. A spate of such assassinations in April and May led directly to the June conflagration. The government ignores this problem. On July 3 for example, Rahmonov issued a decree blithely announcing the appointment of a new administration head of the Jabbor Rasulov district (Soghd Region), on the grounds that the predecessor chief’s term of office “is considered to have expired due to his death.” In fact, that official–Sobirjon Begijonov of the IRP–had been assassinated on May 26.

In his Reconciliation Day statement, Rahmonov lumped the remaining armed opposition groups, organized crime and drug-trafficking together, and warned that the government would crack down on all those who “disturb the people’s tranquility.” However, it is generally recognized by now that progovernment clans, and organized crime groups within the government itself, are directly involved in the international narcotics trade.

The government has failed to honor some of the basic provisions of the 1997 pacification agreement. Those include a quota of 30 percent of government posts at all levels for ex-UTO members, freedom of political activity for organizations and members of the IRP, and incorporation of a certain number of ex-UTO fighters in the Tajik army and internal security agencies. Some of those ex-guerrillas who did accept incorporation were dismissed from the forces last year, when Rahmonov decreed the abolition of contract service. The servicemen thus released became unemployed and potential recruits to the opposition armed groups insubordinate to the IRP. As long as the pacification agreement is violated, the potential for civil conflict will persist (Dushanbe Radio, Asia-Plus, Itar-Tass, Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), June 26-July 4; Institute for War and Peace Research–Central Asia, no. 58, June 29; see the Monitor, January 23, 31, February 9, March 12, June 13, 26; Fortnight in Review, March 16).

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