A Forgotten Civil War

Twenty years ago this month Tajikistan’s vicious five-year long civil war came to an end. It was an obscure conflict, and remains so. The only major news outlet covering the war’s 20th anniversary this week was The Diplomat, which featured a cover story on the war by Central Asia expert Christian Bleuer.

What happened

The Tajik civil war began in 1992, barely months after it gained independence from that great prison of nations, the Soviet Union. The chaos arose from a strange stew of historical circumstances: Stalin’s redrawing of boundaries across ethnic frontiers, the moral and economic bankruptcy of Soviet rule, ethnic tensions, nascent nationalism, and not least, Islamic radicalism spilling over from the war in Afghanistan.

There is little point trying to recount the minutiae of the civil war here. Suffice to say that with Soviet power gone, the new country government suffered a crisis of legitimacy and a lack of credible central authority. Bleuer quotes an expert who summarized it as “a war fought between regional elites; specifically, following the collapse of the center, networks of elites, organized according to region, mobilized their supporters against one another in an effort to gain control of the existing state institutions.”

The major factions included Kulobi Tajiks, Gharm Tajiks and the country’s sizeable Uzbek minorities. Many refugees poured into the capital Dushanbe, while many others, including ethnic Russians and educated Tajiks fled the country, taking their badly needed skills with them.

The turning point came in September of 1992, when the Russians intervened. Special forces from the 14th GRU joined the Kulobi faction. A vicious fight ensued, replete with tit-for-tat atrocities, but by December, the Kulobis had marched into Dushanbe.

It was time for the second, more intractable phase of the war: an extended guerrilla campaign that was largely limited to the Gorno-Badakshan region. The rebels received backing from across the border from Ahmed Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leaders of the resistance against the rising spectre from the south: the Taliban.

The third and final phase of the war came in 1997. The Northern Alliance’s chief backers, Russia and Iran (the third, less important sponsor was India) realised that they needed to unite Tajik factions in order to face off the Pakistan-backed Taliban. The two countries pressured all factions involved to sign a peace agreement in June 1997. According to Bleuer, “the opposition received 30 percent of government posts and prominent figures within the opposition were given valuable economic assets to keep them satisfied. Many opposition commanders, however, were not able to adapt to the new system, and resorted to violence. The government was equally enthusiastic about the use of violence or prison to deal with former opposition fighters they wanted out of the political and economic scene.”

Slowly, the government consolidated its power under the leadership of Kulobi strongman Emomali Rahmon, still Tajikistan’s president for life. Tajiks had in effect, traded war for a suffocating dictatorship.

Tajikistan now

Emomali Rahmon does not seem to be a man of half measures. He and his family have become billionaires in a country with a GDP of just about $7 billion. According to a damning US embassy cable from 2010 that was released by Wikileaks, “Rahmon and his family control the country’s major businesses, including the largest bank, and they play hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large. As one foreign ambassador summed up, President Rahmon prefers to control 90% of a ten-dollar pie rather than 30% of a hundred-dollar pie.”

Rahmon is also grooming his son to succeed him and has stifled all dissent, peaceful or otherwise. The perfectly moderate Islamic Renaissance Party, which was part of the opposition during the civil war, but has long since given up arms, “has been destroyed in Tajikistan following a government campaign that culminated in 2015.” It is currently labelled a terrorist group.

The repression at home has spewed actual terrorism abroad. In 2015, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of a Tajik special forces unit, defected to ISIS. He had received training in the US on three separate occasions. Tajik nationals presently “comprise the highest number of non-Syrian or Iraqi Islamic State suicide bombers”. As ISIS loses ground in the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, some of these fighters may well return home. Unfortunately, any trouble they might cause will only help Rahmon strengthen his grip. As Bleuer concludes “the future of Tajikistan is bleak.”

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