Colonel Mahmud Khudoberdiev: A Dead/Living Uzbek/Lakay Warlord/Hero

by Christian Bleuer on 7/21/2007 · 12 comments

As far as I’m concerned, Colonel Mahmud Khudoberdiev is dead. At some point in late 2001 he was killed in Uzbekistan, far from his home in Qurghonteppe, Tajikistan. This Soviet Army veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War rose to prominence as a very capable commander in the Tajik Civil War. But soon it started to fall apart for this Afghantsy and he took on one adventure too many, resulting in his death.


I was content to have him as a small part of my research, a significant recent historical figure of the Tajik Civil War. But then last week I got smacked by the Central Asian rumour mill. I was having a conversation with a Tajik scholar, discussing commanders from the Tajik Civil War, when I brought up the subject of Colonel Khudoberdiev. I was told, with a high degree of “eto fakt,” that Colonel Khudoberdiev is not only alive and well, but that he commanded the troops that carried out the 2005 Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan.

Needless to say I was extremely skeptical. OK, actually I don’t believe it at all. I believe that Khudoberdiev has been dead for six years now.

I bring this up not to spread the latest rumour “a la Juma Namangani is alive and hiding in the hills,” but rather to illustrate the difficulties of researching in an environment that is not just full of gaps but also full of competing biases and agendas. Of course, you get this everywhere on the planet. But in a place like Tajikistan there is also an information and news vacuum that is often filled with rumour and conjecture (obviously, more so in the 1990s than now).

As for the strange story of Colonel Khudoberdiev, I’ve tried my best to reconstruct it. Take this as a warning to quit reading, I’m going to go into detail that may bore you to tears.

After serving in Afghanistan as an officer, and significantly as a Central Asian nationality, Colonel Khudoberdiev returned to the Tajik SSR to wind down his career in the Turkistan Military District and later to an office as the Deputy Military Commander of the Qurghonteppe Oblast. But after independence the Tajik Civil War reached Qurghonteppe and Khudoberdiev was drawn in to the conflict. It is at this point that ethnicity, or the uncertainty thereof, becomes important. During the Soviet era the communists created kolkhozes (collective farms) that were quite often based on ethnicity or a local solidarity group, also known as an avlod. In Qurghonteppe, many collective farms were comprised of Gharmi Tajiks who had been deported there from their home region east of Dushanbe. Intentionally or not, these collective farms were put into competition for resources with ethnic Uzbek and Uzbek-Lakay (sic) farms. Additionally, ethnic Lakay from the area were sent out of their home region. Amazingly, there was even a Lakay revolt in the 1960s that was resolved with both force and concessions by the Soviets. In the 1990s both sides took the opportunity provided by civil war to attack each other, with local Gharmis siding with the United Tajik Opposition and Uzbeks/Lakays siding with the Popular Front.

Khudoberdiev is often identified as an Uzbek and his thrashing of the UTO forces in Qurghonteppe is noted. But is he really an Uzbek? He was actually an ethnic Lakay, an Uzbek-speaking group that, for many of its members, maintains a separate identity (in the last census about 1% of the population of Tajikistan claimed to be Lakay). “Uzbek” or not, what is significant is that he becamed to be viewed as a protector of ethnic Uzbeks in the Qurghonteppe region. His involvement began when he rounded up several tanks and formed a mobile armoured unit. One account relates that the UTO attempted to recruit him, and when he tried to maintain neutrality his house was burned and his relatives massacred (I call this the “Braveheart” version).

By late 1992 the Uzbek population in Qurghonteppe was granted autonomy. However, as part of the power consolidation process, the Kulobis who dominated the Popular Front turned on their allies and attempted to disarm the Lakays and Uzbeks in Qurghonteppe. A new region, Khatlon, was created with Qurghonteppe as a part of it in order to lessen the Uzbek/Lakay influence. In response, Khudoberdiev faced off with/rebelled against the Kulobi-dominated government several times before taking refuge in Uzbekistan, a country whose government gave him significant support. Not content to retire in Uzbekistan, Khudoberdiev mounted an invasion of the northern Sughd region in 1998. This time the government called on their former UTO enemies for support and a combined force repelled Khudoberdiev back into Uzbekistan. Of course Uzbekistan denied any involvement, as if a mobile armoured infantry unit can just hang out in Uzbekistan without the government noticing.

So this is where we are: with a story of a man who may or may not be an Uzbek (depending on who you ask), who is a protector to some and a warlord to others, who may or not have been a client of Uzbekistan, and who died under very unclear circumstances when he has killed by either his own men or by members of the Uzbekistan Interior Ministry. And the worst part is when you come across the latest rumour (how do you tell wild speculation from fact?). The whole point of this story is to illustrate the difficulty in just making one small claim about one part of the civil war in Taikistan. I assume that many others are facing similar issues with their research throughout the region. It is not possible to write just one small paragraph. Numerous qualifications and conflicting claims must be analyzed. The result is way too many words in a paper and a mostly inconclusive analysis.

I only have another dozen or so commanders to analyse. Hopefully they can be analysed with a little more certainty.

If you wish to venture down the rabbit hole you may wish to start with these analyses and the footnotes therein:

Nourzhanov, Kirill. (2005) ‘Saviours of the nation or robber barons?’ Warlord politics in Tajikistan’, Central Asian Survey, 24(2), June 2005.

Uzbeks Versus The Center: Mobilization as an Ethnic Minority in the Tajikistan and Afghanistan Civil Wars” (PDF)

Or go to Matteo Fumagalli’s profile and look up his writings.

Note that there are numerous transliteration variations on “Khudoberdiev” (i.e., Khudoyberdiev, Khudoiberdiev, Khudoberdiyev, etc…).

Also note that I’m a Westerner using a pen-name.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 22 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

I am currently a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Nathan July 21, 2007 at 8:42 pm

Excellent post. Very fascinating. Thanks for writing it.

Nathan July 21, 2007 at 8:44 pm

Oh, and by the way, where did you hear he was dead? Can you share any details on that variant of the story?

atom1 July 22, 2007 at 6:27 pm

i notice that bin laden`s group and maybe himself –
is active in or near the border of pakistan and violence is escalating there.
and you know they have the a bomb .
it wont take much to get control and and why worry about some second rate colonel when all hell may break loose soon.
this has been allow to fester because this goofy leader is playing footsie with the tribesmen on the border region.
they are calling for a second surge in iraq when the troops should be hitting hard this border area.

Michael Hancock July 23, 2007 at 9:47 am

We know they have a bomb?

Like what? A nuclear bomb on the back of a donkey cart? Some IEDs? A ‘dirty bomb’? Bin Laden’s ‘group’ has a lot of things, but one thing they don’t have is access to heavy bombers or the airstrips to launch and land them. So anything they bomb they will have to carry the bomb there —

unless I am woefully ignorant of some bomb-mitigating circumstances for the tribal groups in Pakistan. Seems the most likely heavy weapon they would possess would be some WWI-era style gas weapons, something low key and easy to carry around.

Michael Hancock July 23, 2007 at 9:49 am

Great post, by the way. I have noticed the same vacuum of knowledge and the importance of hearsay and “bozor mish-mish” in determining anything not found in the news media.

Michael July 23, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Fascinating… what is your larger research project?

Kayumars July 23, 2007 at 5:43 pm

RE: “where did you hear he was dead?”

Footnote 95 in Nourzhanov, K. (2005) Europe-Asia Studies Vol.24(2) gives one version:

“The circumstances of Khudoberdyev’s death are unclear. He was reported to have died in a car accident or in
a drunken brawl, although most agree that he was killed at a meeting with Uzbek military officials by his
second in command, Col. Sergei Zvarygin (Nezavisimaia gazeta, 11 October 2001).”

RFE/RL reported that the Uzbek(istani) officers at the meeting may have played a role in his death.

There are other versions in my notes which are way far away from me at the moment. You caught me flat footed. That’s the best I can do at the moment.

Kayumars July 23, 2007 at 5:49 pm

RE: “what is your larger research project?”

In the broadest sense: behaviour of pre-existing solidarity groups (ethnic, patronage, political, avlod, etc..) and their leaders during civil war in Tajikistan and some other places.

atom 1 July 24, 2007 at 3:23 am

didn`t mean the bin laden group per se has a bomb-
but the pakistani military has a few a bombs.
and it would`nt take much more car bombings and a well place bullit for control of that stockpile of bombs to fall into the wrong hands.
and for the delivery of the weapons,
i think the pakistanis have missiles or planes that can reach our friends in the middle east or india or who knows where .
and maybe this nut case could fire a missile at moskow and what do u think the russians would do ?
and i find it hard to believe that the bushies dont have any special ops operation in that area now to eradicate the terrorists.
and as far as uzbeks gov or this colonel guy just think of the capone mob or better yet the russian mob.
this 3rd world country is run like a criminal organization and if it was a corp here they be charge under the rico act .

Mark July 28, 2007 at 10:50 am

Old thread but I just got to read it (I have a real job). So who owns the movie rights to this story?

“have died in a car accident or in
a drunken brawl, although most agree that he was killed at a meeting with Uzbek military officials by his
second in command”

Awesome. Maybe it was a combination of all three.

Djana August 9, 2007 at 9:21 am

The possibility of Khudoberdiev’s involvement in the Andijan events was really something that people talked about. I am surprised that you learned about it 2 years later. Anyway, yes, it is one of the variations of who was involved, but we won’t really know, right?

Kayumars August 9, 2007 at 9:59 am

RE: “The possibility of Khudoberdiev’s involvement in the Andijan events was really something that people talked about. I am surprised that you learned about it 2 years later.”

At the time I was far more interested in who was involved in the protests/uprising than who was commanding what troops. Plus I had way too many credit hours in a grad school far, far away to do much digging.

Also, I don’t do anything related to policy so I have the luxury of waiting at least a couple of years before attempting an analysis (by which time the most ridiculous of the rumours have usually gone out with the tide).

Previous post:

Next post: