Counter-Terrorism: The Wildmen Of Neverwhere

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August 5, 2012: Tajikistan is in the midst of another civil war. But it's not as simple as that. The rebellion is confined to Gorno-Badakhshan province, a vast area in the southeast that contains 45 percent of the national area but only three percent of the 7.6 million population. This is one of those "middle of nowhere" places, inhabited by the kind of people you don't want to mess with. This province is somewhat autonomous because its population is not ethnic Tajik but a collection of minorities that are often referred to as the "Pamiris" (after the Pamir Mountains that cover much of the province). The majority of the Pamiris are, like the Tajiks and Pushtuns to the south, Indo-European people related to Iranians.

The rebel leader, Tolib Ayombekov, led an earlier rebellion and, as part of a peace deal to end the fighting, was made head of the border police along part of the Afghan frontier. Ayombekov was accused of having the head of provincial security killed on July 21st. This was believed to be the result of a dispute over who would control how much of the drug smuggling from Afghanistan. Ayombekov  is a Pamiri, his alleged victim is not. Attempts to arrest Ayombekov and disarm his followers has left over fifty dead so far and many more arrested. Soldiers and police moving into Gorno-Badakhshan were not surprised to find a lot of Afghan drug smugglers and Islamic radicals there. The Pamiris practice a moderate Shia sect and are not into religious radicalism or terrorism.  But they are poor and are always open to new economic opportunities.

Tolib Ayombekov was the kind of guy who understood all that and has no trouble attracting thousands of armed and ambitious followers. Ayombekov considers himself a benevolent presence in the Pamirs. Unfortunately, Ayombekov and his men are willing to do business with Islamic terrorists, as long as they can pay in cash or favors. The government didn't much care what Ayombekov did as long as he did it quietly. But killing other government officials is not tolerated. Striking back is a bit of a problem though, as there is only one road into Gorno-Badakhshan. The most common form of transportation in the province is horse, cross-country vehicle, or foot. The government has some helicopters but not enough to dominate this vast area (64,200 square kilometers).

One of the poorest Central Asian nations, Tajikistan has coped by exporting a lot of its men to work overseas. As a result, about a third of Tajikistan's GDP is money sent home by these migrant workers. By taking so many young men out of the country this has made it more difficult for Islamic radical groups to recruit.

Despite that, poverty, corruption and dictatorial rule caused many people to look to Islamic radicalism as a solution to their problems. Ayombekov provided a non-religious alternative in the Pamirs.

There are also tribal frictions, which led to a civil war in 1992-7 (that did not involve Gorno-Badakhshan). That conflict was more suppressed than settled and there is growing fear that the civil war will revive. The 1990s rebels were dominated by Islamic radical groups. These zealots get support from the south. The 1,300 kilometer long border with Afghanistan has facilitated heavy traffic by drug smugglers and Islamic radicals. The drug smugglers are believed to be working with the Islamic terror groups, much as they do inside Afghanistan. The Islamic militants provide the muscle for the smugglers and the smugglers provide weapons and cash.

The current outbreak in Gorno-Badakhshan is more about basic survival than Islamic radicalism. The Pamiris want to keep Tajiks out and maintain control over all the lucrative drug smuggling that goes through their territory. But the nearby Tajik tribes have more people and guns. While the Pamiris know the terrain, they cannot survive a long war against the lowlanders.

 


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