KABUL - Friday, August 17, 2012 -
After a week of fighting, events in Tajikistan’s part of Badakhshan are quieting down. While a lot has been made in some media outlets of a possible cross-border Taliban link, events seem to have their background in the drug economy rather.
On the Afghan side of the border politicking as a side-effect of the events is continuing, implying rearrangement in drug-trafficking networks and possibly an early positioning for the 2014 presidential elections, concludes Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN (with input from Fabrizio Foschini and Gran Hewad).
The volatile situation in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan seems to have started to return to normal again. The leader of a short rebellion, Toleb Ayembekov, has surrendered to the Tajik authorities on August 12 on the condition that he would be given a chance to prove his innocence in a free and fair trial in Khorog, the autonomous area’s capital.
Ayembekov, a former local commander in the 1990s Tajik civil war and who recently has held the most profitable position in the area as commander of the border police post at Ishkashem, denied official Tajik reports in an interview given shortly before he fled across the border to Afghanistan. As one Central Asia expert correctly noted:
‘There is a general assumption that Afghanistan is a notorious exporter of violence and that the pullout of U.S. and NATO troops in 2014 from the country portends trouble for the neighboring states of Central Asia. Yet this assumption rests on shaky evidence. The recent fighting in Tajikistan reminds us that disorder and violence in Central Asia are homegrown phenomena.’
Nevertheless, there is an Afghan dimension in the latest events at the border between Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan. The rebellion had led Tajikistan to close all border crossings with Afghanistan, both at the borders with (Afghan) Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces. While NATO supply trucks had been exempted, Afghan Badakhshan’s authorities warned against a threat of famine in the province the food situation of which is known to be volatile.
On the political side, more details about the mysterious eight Afghans who had been arrested during the fighting have yet to materialize. But judging by the killing of the district governor of Shughnan in Afghan Badakhshan on Tuesday, things are not necessarily over on the Afghan side. The governor, Saifullah Sediqi, was killed together with the commander of the border protection forces, Muhammad Kazem, in a dubious 'insurgent' ambush near the border between Arghanjkhwa and Baharak district.
Already during the fighting on the Tajik side of the border, politicking has been picking up on its Afghan side, following reports, mainly by Tajik officials and Russian media, that the rebels in Gorno Badakhshan (if one can call them this) have links with the Taliban on the Afghan side of the border and might receive support from them.
President Karzai has presented himself helpful to his Tajik colleague Rahmon and sent Interior Minister Bismillah Muhammadi (meanwhile dismissed by a parliamentary vote of non-confidence in another context) and National Directorate of Security (NDS) chief Rahmatullah Nabil to Dushanbe for consultations early on during the events. If Afghan media reports can be fully relied in in this case, arrests also have been made
The government in Kabul also sent more forces to its own side of the border while Afghan media reported simultaneously that a group of ‘insurgents from Khorog’, Gorno Badakhshan’s capital, had been arrested in Afghanistan. Whether that is true, or just one of usual propaganda statements (which are spread in both countries) is unclear.
After AAN enquiries in Afghan Badakhshan and browsing through earlier Afghan media reports, a clear picture of what is happening on the ground is still difficult to establish. But it can be taken as a fact that a relatively large Taliban group is active in Warduj district.
Already in July last year Hasht-e Sobh quoted local residents that ‘there are 200 to 250 Talibs in Warduj’ ‘harassing’ people and forcibly recruiting fighters. According to the report, the Warduj inhabitants had launched negotiations with the Taliban after which the latter ‘committed to avoid harassing people using the roads, but only to stand against the government’s security forces’.
According to other reports AAN has collected from Badakhshan, the insurgents – who, since November last year, regularly seem to have been positioning checkpoints on a key road leading from the provincial capital Faizabad to Baharak, Warduj and further on to Zebak, Ishkashem and Tajikistan – are also cooperating in the safe passage for drug convoys coming from Darayem and Baharak, as a ‘contribution to jihad’, namely by ‘sending drugs to the enemies of Islam’. Baharak is the second biggest town and bazaar of Badakhshan and, according to a 2011 AREU report:
‘[r]ecent security incidents in Baharak District were attributed […] to the replacement of the long-serving district police chief. In Baharak, the position is a lucrative one given its central position to trade in opium in the province, and the displaced chief is assumed by many to be behind the sudden rise in insecurity.’
The group in Warduj is reported to be led by Mawlawi Shamsuddin from Ragh district who also acts as the Taliban’s provincial leader. He has been affiliated with Hezb-e Islami in the past.
Another interesting detail is that former Taliban minister (for planning, later for higher education) Qari Din Muhammad Hanif who spoke in the name of the Taliban Emirate at an academic conference in Kyoto, Japan in July is from Argu district in Badakhshan, one of the few non-Pashtuns in the Taliban leadership then and now.
Warduj has registered ‘sustained insecurity’ and is mentioned as the ‘most insecure district in the province’ of Badakhshan in the first half of this year in reports by the Afghan NGO Safety Office. The local Taliban group has accounted ‘for just over half (24 out of the last 47) of the security incidents recorded in Badakhshan since December 2011’ and ‘has shown itself to be an active group, growing consistently in size’. It receives ‘strong community support due to the unpopularity of certain members inside [the] local ANP structure'. Repeated ANSF operations in the area have not significantly curbed its activity that seems to stretch throughout much of the district.
The Hasht-e Sobh report already quoted also refers to the head of Badakhshan’s provincial council, Mawlawi Zabihullah Ateq, saying that ‘as a result of the government officials’ carelessness, the Taliban have build their nests in many districts’. Apart from Warduj, another ANSO report calls Baharak and Kuran wa Munjan (with activity mainly coming in from neighboring Nuristan and Warduj as well as from Chitral in Pakistan) the ‘most insecure districts’ in the region, adding that the insurgents also try to establish ‘a stronger foothold’ in Darayem (infiltrated more directly from Baghlan but through the normal Taloqan-Faizabad road).
This year, Afghan media reported insurgency-related incidents also from Argu district. There also seems to be an infiltration route for insurgents from Chitral in Pakistan, leading through Zebak district to Warduj.
Some local sources contacted by AAN also speak of Uzbek and Tajik rebels, Pakistanis and members of the radical-Islamist Hizb-e Tahrir present in Warduj. Hizb-e Tahrir, a relatively new ‘opposition’ group in Afghanistan that does not participate in armed fighting but instead concentrates on propaganda activities (and recruitment – an at least indirect support for the insurgency), particularly seems to becoming stronger in the area.
Sources from Central Asia AAN has contacted say that some of these fighters ‘take rest’ on the Tajik side of the border. But as so often, the role of outside fighters might be exaggerated. ANSO, this April, reported that the ‘Warduj-based A[rmed] O[pposition] G[roup]s have yet to gain significant support from other non-domestic A[rmed] O[pposition] G[roup]s’.
Although both strands are not necessarily two different things, the events in both parts of Badakhshan seem to have their background more in the drug economy than in the insurgency. According to UN data (and quoted from Frankfurter Rundschau, 15 August 2012), 80 tons of heroin and 20 tons of opium cross the Afghan-Tajik border annually.
This reading has been confirmed by Afghan national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta: ‘The problem on the Tajik border is about smuggling. We will deploy forces to crush the smugglers’.
Some other details speak for this version, like a report that Shohada district police chief Qari Wadud had been arrested on July 28 and was going to be transferred to Kabul. Wadud is known to possess drug processing factories in the district and sending convoys with drugs to Tajikistan. Evidence, which was delivered to Afghan authorities by Tajik officials, apparently was sufficient to convince the Afghan side on his involvement in the fighting in Tajikistan.
More precisely, certain forces in Faizabad or Kabul might take the opportunity of the fighting and the Tajik government’s appeal for help to effect a rearrangement – or takeover - of the narco-trafficking networks in control of the border crossings between Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan.
The events also can be linked with preparations for the 2014 elections that already are casting their shadows ahead: Could local Shura-ye Nazar people fear that a renewed Karzai-Zalmay Mojaddidi-Rabbani axis might attempt to sweep them off the electoral map in Afghanistan’s populous north-eastern most province? MP Mojadeddi – an influential supporter of Karzai already during the 2004 election who, for a while, was made responsible for the President’s security detail for a while - and Rabbani originally belong to the Jamiat opposition camp but Karzai has been successful time and again in driving a wedge into it.
(This article was first published by the Afghanistan Analyst Network. See original article at http://aan-afghanistan.com/index.asp?id=2933).