21 May 2014 -- Khorog, Tajikistan
Given the clarity of hindsight, the conflict in Khorog was predictable, even inevitable. The intensity and sudden escalation, however, was unexpected. Even more unexpected was how quickly the conflict de-escalated and agreements were made among civil society leaders and the government. Why did this happen? Why did this conflict not turn into a long drawn out civil insurrection and insurgency? The informal organizations provided both the buffer and the conduit for communication with the Tajik state administration for those living in Khorog.
The day the conflict occurred, I had just crossed the border into Afghanistan to spend some time with local religious leaders. It was a beautiful late spring day, and the air was just warming from a cold winter riddled with days that were below zero. On this day, steam rose from the patches of cement and puddles along the muddy dirt road to the border crossing into Afghanistan from Tajikistan. The scent of the early morning rain filled the air. We were on our way to Shughnan, Afghanistan for a two-week research trip. It is this day that a conflict erupted between residents of Khorog and Tajik security forces. It was just as we entered the border crossing that our phones started ringing.
As we approach the checkpoint, the Tajik Customs Officers recognize members of the team and jokingly accuse us of being involved in shifty business. As they check our documents, one of the Customs Officers says that my Tajik visa has expired and if I go into Afghanistan I will risk being unable to return to Tajikistan. He asks me for a thousand dollars to ensure my safe return. I point out that the visa has another two months on it even though the recent policy for these types of visas is one month. We go back and forth until he concedes that the visa is indeed legitimate and lets me through. Saddled with our backpacks and gear, we amble across a bridge that divides a river steeped in the history of outside intervention and interference. The bridge from Tajikistan to Afghanistan spans the river Panj. The Aga Khan Foundation funded the construction of the bridge at a cost of USD 400,000 in 2002. (2) Soon after that the EU, Japan, and the US funded the building of the infrastructure and the training of the personnel. Many development projects carve up invisible lines of foreign influence among the international community, and the development of this border crossing was no exception.
Cracks and patches of rust weave their way along the newly laid metal roadway on the bridge. According to an Afghan Border Commander, the metal to build the bridge was purchased at a very low rate from China and is not rated for the cold and harsh climate in the region. According to another interviewee many development projects in the region use cheap building materials bought for low prices. The money saved from buying sub-standard supplies is siphoned off the top and finds its way into the pockets of development workers and the networks of people who control the funding for the projects. As one Border Guard pointed out, if the EU and US really want the border checkpoints to be respected, then why would they allow the infrastructure to be built with Chinese concrete that begins crumbling after the first year and walls that leak after six months?
On the Afghan side of the border, a small, beat-up, brown two-door sedan sent by the brother of the border commander picks us up. The driver brings us to the center of the district of Shughnan. The dirt road to our first meeting overlooks the Panj River that divides the Tajik from the Afghan side of Badakhshan. The state still functions on several levels, as indigenous political and social alliances coexist alongside authoritarian state institutions as well as the many programs implemented by foreign nations that have sought to mold the country in their own image. The region had been divided by the river almost a century before, when the colonial period gave way to the formation of a Soviet satellite in today's Tajikistan
During the formation of the broader Soviet Union, the party leaders in Moscow separated centers of power from peripheries across the entire USSR. In Gorno-Badakhshan, as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was forming, the party leaders separated the locally powerful from their spheres of influence. This included those in the district of Shughnan and the Wakhan Corridor. They split them into administrative units based on sub-ethnic group names. Many of the administrative designations, such as Roshan, Vanj, and Ishkashim, are still being used today. In Ishkashim, which was known as Ghoron prior to Soviet rule, the Soviets concentrated power within the Persian-speaking population and marginalized the Wakhi-speaking people who had been the dominant group in that area. Moscow installed the local administration in Ishkashim, which was home to the minority group. (3) These narratives of difference and true power centers are an ongoing topic of debate in the region. (4)
On the Afghan side of the border, there were conflicts for rule as well. Afghan shahs, pirs, and mirs fought for control while the Russians concentrated their information operation efforts along the border to draw in the Afghans from Badakhshan to the Soviet Union. This came to a head in 1925 during the Shughnan Rebellion when the citizens of Shughnan wrote a letter pleading with the Soviet Union to allow them to secede from Afghanistan. They wrote that the oppression and exploitation of the Isma'ilis was unbearable and that they wanted to be part of the Soviet system, which would recognize them and support them. They assumed, incorrectly, that the newly established Soviet Union would protect their rights as religious minorities. It was in 1937 that the purging of the pirs (religious leaders) in Tajikistan started. The Soviet Union believed that all of the pirs were spies for the British. They rounded many of them up, imprisoned them, and poisoned them in the prison. Some of them escaped to the Afghan side. Shah Langar still lives in Qozideh, a village in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. (5) It was one of these pirs that we were just sitting down to lunch with when our phones started ringing again. The pir had traveled two hours to meet with us in Shughnan, Afghanistan.
It is 21 May 2014, the day of a violent conflict between security forces and local leaders in Khorog, but we do not know this yet. The friend says over the phone that Tajik security forces shot three local leaders. One of them has escaped but the other two (one dead) have been dragged into police headquarters. A few hours later, the police release the body of Sobir, the deputy local leader and Farayd, the wounded leader. In reaction to the shooting and the refusal to release Sobir's body, the locals set fire to the Police Headquarters. They then set the Prosecutor's office and the Courthouse on fire. Our friend tells us that the Tajiks plan to close the border immediately and we have to get to the other side before we are stuck in Afghanistan for an unknown period of time. Jumping into a car provided by a local leader the team arrives at the border and runs to the border crossing. The Afghans allow passage across the bridge back into Tajikistan.
When we arrive many non-local Tajik border guards have been sent to reinforce the border crossing point. The border is about to close due to the conflict. These border guards are non-Pamiris and are viewed as the embodiment of the authoritarian reach the locals abhor. Many expressed to me that these non-Pamiri security forces demand goods for free, harass the local women, run brothels, and dislike Pamiris, often making disparaging remarks. The fact that the border is overrun now with these outside forces is a sign of the seriousness of the intervention our team is about to encounter in Khorog.
One of the border guards points his AK-47 at my chest with his finger on the trigger, staring directly in my eyes and smiling. I ask him to point his gun elsewhere; he acts like he does not understand. I ask a second time, in a heavier non-local dialect, for him to move his barrel. He starts laughing and finally points the Kalashnikov away from my chest and at the ground.
Upon entering Khorog, a dense crowd blocks the street. Burning buildings spread down the main thoroughfare and destroyed cars litter the front of the police headquarters. It is unclear what will happen, how chaotic things might become. Many of the local leaders have gathered, some trying to decide what the next steps should be while others meet with my interpreter and his associated group. Young people begin gathering in front of the main square outside the government administration offices in a large peaceful protest. Eleven tents are spread across the square at the end of the first day of protest, each representing one of the 17 or 18 mahallas (neighborhoods) in Khorog. The other mahallas do not engage in the protest because they are more ideologically aligned with the government of Tajikistan. Some want to purge the area of the local leaders in support of the Tajik government's intervention, while others work for the government and risk losing their jobs if they protest.
For twelve days the male protesters camp out in the main square. Women are not allowed. During the conflict in 2012, some women fought on the side of the resistance and the government of Tajikistan said that the Pamiris were cowards for sending their women to fight the battles for them. The locals did not want to be accused of putting the women in danger again or of being too cowardly to fight.
The Minister of Defense, two other officials, and the head of the GKNB flew in on military helicopters from Dushanbe, the capital, to negotiate a settlement with the local leaders. The question on everybody's mind is whether the Tajik military will bomb Khorog, attack it from the hillsides with snipers--Khorog sits in...