Tajikistan differs from the other countries of Central Asia for several reasons. Tajiks are the only relatively large group of Persian-speaking people in Central Asia. The titular nationalities of the remaining republics belong to the Turkic language group. The threat of forceful assimilation by Turks is something that is still discussed by Tajik intellectuals today. They note that the most important centers of Tajik culture–Bukhara and Samarkand–were cut off from the republic during the Soviet era and that the indigenous Tajik populations in these cities were registered as Uzbeks. Tajikistan was also the only Central Asian country in which civil war erupted after the breakup of the USSR, a conflict that claimed about 40,000 lives.
Moreover, in the course of the war one of the sides actively employed Islamic rhetoric and created a micro-state in the Karategin valley, a remote mountainous region of the republic, which was nominally governed in accordance with Sharia law. Until recently, training camps of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were located in the Karategin valley, and militants used this location to launch armed raids into Uzbekistan. All of this indicates that Tajikistan remains a potential source for instability in the region. The extent of this problem is dependent upon several factors affecting Tajikistan now.
The civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) was less an ideological rivalry than a struggle between various geographical groupings of Tajiks. For many years the northern Tajiks (centered around the northern city of Leninabad), were dominant in the republic. Beginning in the late 1930s, the first secretaries of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Tajikistan were from Leninabad oblast. For that reason, members of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) in May of 1992 were predominantly comprised of Tajiks from areas such as Karategin and Pamir; they were seeking to take power by force from the “northerners.”
But after the 1997 truce agreement was reached, the UTO received a 30 percent quota for government positions and those within the opposition who had identified themselves as Islamists dropped their calls for the establishment of an Islamic state. The present charter of the Islamic Party of Revival (IPR), for instance, is limited to “defending the rights of Muslims.” The IPR’s leadership also supported the post-9/11 coalition military operations in Afghanistan. IPR head Said Abdullo Nuri stated that “the United States and their allies simply did not have another option.” The party’s leadership voiced only the mildest criticism of the U.S.-led operation in Iraq. Deputy Chairman Muhiddin Kabiri said that: “Even though we condemned Saddam Hussein’s policy, to our way of thinking, it still would have been much more useful to resolve the Iraqi problem by other than forceful means.”
In general, after opposition leaders received positions in the government, they also refrained from antagonizing their former enemies, including the president of the republic, Imomali Rahmonov. One of the most prominent UTO figures, Akbar Turajonzoda, after assuming the position of deputy prime minister, cut his ties with former opposition comrades and declared his full support for Rahmonov’s policies. Similarly, one of the most powerful field commanders of the opposition, Mirzo Zieev, after becoming minister of emergencies, declared his loyalty to the president. During the civil war Zieev was famous for his radical views, stating in the mid-1990s that the UTO would consider ending the war only “after the liberation of the truly Tajik lands–Bukhara and Samarkand.” Since assuming his ministerial position, however, Zieev seems to have forgotten his past geopolitical ambitions and has not made any more such statements.
Yet a potential for future instability still exists among the UTO’s rank and file, who told the author that they feel their leaders “sold out for ministerial portfolios.” These former militants repeatedly expressed the following point of view: “As it turns out, the war was not so much for the idea but for the power. As soon as our leaders received much desired positions, they instantly forgot about us. If we knew how all of this would end, we would have never gotten mixed up in these dirty deals.”
Countering such disgruntlement is the fact that, since the end of the civil war, the problem of geographic tribalism in political life has become much less significant. Tired of the many years of war, most Tajiks seem ready to accept the fact that the president is from a particular region as long as there is peace in the republic. In all parts of the republic, the author heard the following: “For us it is no longer important from which region is the president of Tajikistan. At least today we finally feel relatively safe, and if Rahmonov manages to preserve peace, then with Allah’s help let him reign for many years!”
THE EXTERNAL FACTOR
In today’s Tajikistan, it would appear that there is simply no well organized force capable of causing significant destabilization in the republic. However, it would be premature to rule out completely the danger of a renewed escalation of tensions. Until 2000, elements from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were positioned in the Vanch region of the southern province of Gorno Badakhshan. These militants had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Tajik opposition since the early days of the civil war. In 1996 IMU leader Juma Namangani became the first deputy to the influential UTO field commander Mirzo Zieev, who is now Tajikistan’s minister of emergencies.
Following the terrorist acts in Uzbekistan in February of 1999, large numbers of that country’s citizens emigrated to Tajikistan as the Uzbek authorities launched large scale arrests of religious people, many of whom in reality had no connections with the armed underground. Entire families moved to Tajikistan, and a network of compact Uzbek settlements emerged particularly in the Karategin valley area. Moreover, some in official circles in Dushanbe began to seriously consider the idea of granting a portion of that valley to Uzbek refugees, where a “free Islamic Uzbekistan in exile” could be established.
Along with the peaceful settlements of Uzbeks there were also military camps in Karategin, for instance, near the village of Khait, at a former seismic research station close to the village of Tajikabad, and in the village of Mianadu, which is about 70 kilometers from the regional center of Tavildar. In the summer of 1999 and 2000, IMU militants entered Kyrgyzstan from the Karategin valley in an effort to reach, ultimately, the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. Detachments of some field commanders from the Karategin valley (for instance, Mullah Abdullo from Komsomolabad and Sheikh from Tajikabad) also took part in these armed raids of Uzbek Islamists.
In the fall of 2000, under pressure from Tashkent, the IMU camps in Tajikistan were closed and the group’s militants fled across the border to Afghanistan. Some Tajik Islamists, who considered Dushanbe’s policy toward the IMU a betrayal of brother Muslims, accompanied the Uzbeks. Field commander Mullah Abdullo was among those who joined the Uzbeks in their journey to Afghanistan.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
At present, some IMU elements remain in the Afghan part of the Pamir mountain range close to the town of Faizabad. UTO elements disappointed with the peace deal struck with President Rahmonov are also located there. These individuals represent a possible nucleus for a well-organized and combat-ready army. They may well be regrouping for a new strike. As former field commander and now head of the Vanch border regiment, Mukim Mukhambatov, told the author: “It is still quite easy to cross the Tajik-Afghan border, so the Uzbek militants can appear in the Karategin Valley at any time.”
IMU militants would likely find some support among the population of the Karategin valley and the Vanch region since at least a few residents have fond memories of their earlier presence there. The author was told that, unlike the Tajik militants, the Uzbeks never engaged in robberies or marauding, but instead were friendly toward the locals. A former UTO fighter who is now IPR deputy chairman in Gorno Badakhshan province, Yurali Miroliev, related: “During the fighting in 1996 we captured several soldiers from the government troops and our militants began to abuse them, but [the Uzbek] Juma Namangani prohibited this and explained that according to Islam the prisoners should be treated humanely.”
It is possible that the IMU could rely on some former UTO field commanders who failed to assume profitable positions in the Tajik government. These ex-fighters are now disillusioned with their past leaders and feel they have been forgotten and neglected. In private conversations, many of them did not hide their sympathy for the IMU and insisted that if the Uzbek militants were to appear again in Tajikistan, they would lend them support in any way they could. Whether the IMU will do so, however, remains to be seen.