Despite the concerns of Central Asia watchers that last month’s situation in Tajikistan’s poorest region could rapidly descend into chaos, the rebels have given up the gun, literally. As the incident seems destined to fade into the past with little fanfare, it is appropriate to analyze why Central Asia is less susceptible to insurgencies, and why it is a mistake to view the region through the lens of Afghanistan alone.
On August 12th, Tolib Ayombekov and two of his brothers gave themselves up to Tajik authorities, ending speculation that he and his small band would remain in hiding from the government and continue their fight.
How did we get here?
On July 24th an estimated eight hundred Tajik soldiers, with helicopters above, descended on Khorog, capital of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), with the express purpose of detaining Ayombekov. Like many former opposition commanders from the Civil War (1992-1997), Ayombekov reconciled with the victors – chief among them, still-President Emomalii Rahmon – by accepting a position in the new government. Ayombekov has since served as the commander of a local border post, and thus arbiter of a portion of Tajikistan’s rampant and profitable smuggling racket.
Tajik authorities accused Ayombekov of responsibility for the July 21st death of Major-General Abdullo Nazarov, head of the Gorno-Badakhshan branch of Tajikistan’s State Committee on National Security (the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB). Additional charges implicate Ayombekov, and his group, in the smuggling of drugs and rubies, as wel as human trafficking. Ayombekov denies the charges, but told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he would “answer before the law.”
When the soldiers descended into Khorog, Ayombekov and his small armed group defied them. The end of Ayombekov’s rebellion began with the surrender of his group’s weapons. Asked about this by RFE/RL, he said his decision to surrender the weapons came in response to a request to do so by the Agha Khan, whose Shi’ite Ismaili sect most of GBAO follows.
Reportedly 17 soldiers, 30 rebels and one civilian were killed in the fighting before Ayombekov’s August 12th surrender.
Analysts worried that Ayombekov’s initial defiance of the government would lead to an insurgency. This came, in large part, from viewing Tajikistan’s trouble through the lens of Afghanistan – insurgency, Islamists and opposition. This connection was encouraged by rumors that Ayombekov had fled across the river into Afghanistan and that he was receiving support from the Taliban. Ayombekov denies these claims, but he confirmed to RFE/RL that he had been offered $7 million to overthrow Rahmon’s government by foreigners.
Ayombekov is not looking to re-start the Civil War, a five-year tragedy which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. Far from framing the conflict through the lens of Afghanistan, we ought to view it through the lens of Tajikistan as it exists today.
The country is consistently ranked as the region’s poorest, with the lowest per capital GDP among the fifteen former Soviet states. A recent, and unhyped, find of oil by Canada’s Tethys Petroleum may mean an influx of funds in the future but no guarantee that the average Tajik’s situation will improve. While the average Tajik is very poor, especially in GBAO, Khorog is reportedly home to a number of luxury cars and mansions which illustrate economic inequality between the average Tajik citizen and those running the profitable smuggling routes.
Like most Central Asian rulers, Emomalii Rahmon has constructed a veritable cult-of-personality among his countrymen. Opposition parties exist, but Tajikistan has yet to hold a “free and fair” election by western standards. Smuggling is big business; bribes a part of daily operations. But all roads lead to Dushanbe and Rahmon – border commanders such as Ayombekov conduct their smuggling operations while making nominal drug busts on upstarts to placate the international community and keep themselves in business.
Networks of patronage are among the most important linkages in Central Asian society, and none more so than the connection to Rahmon himself. Ayombekov owed his success as a smuggler to the job Rahmon gave him. This linkage ensures that those with the means – money and weapons – to fight the government tend to defer such an option. Ayombekov’s short-lived defiance of the government included no statements about the sometimes brutal and oppressive rule of Rahmon. In fact, Ayombekov told RFE/RL that Rahmon would take care of him.
Tajikistan is a corrupt, but unified state. Though it may seem merely rhetoric, Rahmon has always emphasized Tajikistan’s inclusive, singular status. Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government struggles to demonstrate its legitimacy and exert sovereignty over its territory. Rahmon’s state apparatus fought for, and won control, in the Civil War and has since exerted unquestioned authority while emphasizing national unity. Highly developed patronage networks which begin and end with the president hold Central Asian states, such as Tajikistan, together.
Catherine Putz is a contributing analyst for the geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat. She hold a Masters in international security and diplomacy from the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School.