The View From Ishkashim

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by Nathan Hamm on 8/6/2012

This is a guest post from Navruz Nekbakhtshoev

Violent Conflict in Badakhshan, Tajikistan: Social Order amidst Chaos and When Master Frames of War Mislead

When the one day war broke out in Khorog, GBAO I was in my native Ishkashim the southernmost district of GBAO which suddenly grabbed the media limelight due to the killing of Abdullo Nazarov, a chairman of the Directorate of Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (KGB). Ishkashim is home to three language based ethnic groups: Ghoronis/Tajiks, Rinis and Wakhis. The people of Ishkashim also identify themselves as Ismailis, a sect in Shia Islam. Ishkashimis also have a territorial identity- Pamiri. If asked why Pamiri, they would tell you that it is because they live in, what is now, GBAO.

From the people in Ishkashim I learnt that the war was caused by the killing of Abdullo Nazarov. While they didn’t known who was really responsible for the killing of Nazarov, they were aware that it must have been done to permanently stop him from passing onto Tolib Ayombekov the burden of sharing with officials in Dushanbe the profit from the illicit cigarette business and keep the share of the profit that he was supposed to pass upward all to himself. People I talked to generally agreed that government’s use of force was excessive and inhumane and that the problem could have been solved through careful investigation. On everything else opinions and attachments differed.
When following the one day war, the central government shut down cellphones and internet, no accurate information percolated from Khorog. Ishkashim was in a zone of uncertainty. Local government, citizens and “fighters with no arms”, as they are pejoratively referred to in Ishkashim were passively waiting to see how the conflict unfolded. Surprisingly the war in Khorog and uncertainty over the course of war coincided with order in Ishkashim.

Government Reaction

Local Government Bureaucrats

“We don’t want Ishkashim to get involved in this conflict, otherwise they will come and carry out a mop up operation here. We are for order and stability.” This was not a public statement by the government. I elicited this response when, after the one day war, I visited the district executive committee (raispalkom) in Ishkashim, in the vain hope of getting new information. I noticed officials were trying to get together to discuss the situation and I chanced to ask the official what the meeting was all about and he told me that it was about the situation in Khorog. I asked him why they don’t meet with the people instead. He assured me that people know the government’s position on the conflict.

Indeed, the local government in Ishkashim explicitly did not inform people about the situation or announce its position on the conflict. It was amazing how passive, weak and inconspicuous the local government was during those days. Police weren’t on the streets as usual. The prosecutor, a native of Mastchoh and alleged extortionist was said to be hiding in the hospital. The district chairman was invisible as usual. A bunch of young guys would gather in front of the local government building to exchange rumors about the war. Meanwhile government officials were complaining to me individually without dispersing these “trouble makers” as they put it. They lamented they have no way of stopping these guys from joining the war. They also confided that the central government cut off the phones probably because of a lack of trust. Another source told me that only the district chairman has an active line.

Government officials in Ishkashim are viewed as corrupt, aloof and nepotistic. In fact, the district has not seen any public works projects funded by the government since the good old Soviet days. The district lacks good roads, schools, bathrooms and drinking water infrastructure. People also complained to me that local government officials force public and private sector employees to raise money for cultural activities and concert performers who come to Ishkashim from Kulob.

A few days into the ceasefire the government used the decree of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismailis in an effort to pacify the “restive” Ishkashim. According to the decree the special military operation carried out by the government of Tajikistan is not aimed against the Ismaili community, given that GBAO is also populated by Sunnis. In fact such operation was also carried out in Rasht valley one year ago. At first people thought the decree was a government fabrication because they thought there was no way for the government to obtain a message from His Highness amidst the information blockade. Following the one day war government dispatched its (government) representatives t o the villages with the decree and also to implement the order of the central government to ask sellers at the markets to not raise food prices. It should be noted that Aga Khan’s development project in Tajikistan have been instrumental in building the post-conflict state in Tajikistan and for it was normal for the government to rely on the Aga Khan’s message to ensure citizens’ compliance. Meanwhile the district government was impalpable in the district itself.

Street Reaction

A Not So Ominous Subproletariat

“They are coming to get us. They want to own Badakhshan. We are not Gharmis(referred to the people living in the Rasht valley where government forces effectively put down an uprising a year ago). Guys we should have nomus[pride] and go to Khorog.” These were the statements by several young men, whom I choose to classify as subrpoletarians,1 a category of people who have never held jobs and spent the better part of their lives either in jail or being engaged in illicit business activities involving drugs and gemstones. While with the rise of subproletarians after the fall of Soviet Union things fell apart in several countries of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan (think of Sangak Safarov a convict- turned -hero for a short while) these guys weren’t at all ominous. The audiences were students (including me) and young public agent workers. It was amazing how overnight these guys gained popularity in the streets only because they allegedly risked going to Khorog to join the war, although the veracity of their story is much in doubt. They told us that they were captured in Khorog by government forces and were later released when they told the soldiers that they were construction workers. It was a tremendous accomplishment for these “nascent fighters”. To undermine the “legitimacy” of the “old fighters” the “nascent fighters” complained that the “old fighters” hid under the cover at home while they risked their life in Khorog and that we shouldn’t listen to what they say. They were making fun of the “old fighters” for suggesting that if need be they would go to Khorog with swords(“fighters” old and new had no guns). It was disturbing that that the “nascent fighters” were aware that they had friends and relatives in action on the government side in Khorog. On the side I asked two guys who were seasonal labor migrants what they thought about the sermon preached by the “nascent fighters” they told me that they did not want to fight the government forces because it is against the wishes of Hazar Imam(the Aga Khan). Another told me that the fighters in Khorog are involved in drug trafficking and it is strongly condemned in our mazhab (Ismaili sect). A few students were anxious to escape Pamirs unhurt in order to be in time for school. The crowd would then disperse for lunch and get back together again to continue exchanging rumors. The pattern continued up until the time I was there, that is August 1st.


“It is all an internal affair….They are trying to settle personal scores….Tolib’s guys killed the KGB official because they didn’t want to share the profit with him. They are all implicit in this illegal business,” said a retiree with no party affiliation. “Government started the war. The use of 3000 armed men to solve the problem is unreasonable. They should have just captured the culprits….We have nothing to do with this conflict and don’t want to see our guys get involved,” said a government official. “People in Khorog fight for Tolib and Imum, because they help the poor and organize religious events,” said a retiree and a member of communist party. “It would be great if they get rid of wholesale smugglers so that we could buy stuff at the Afgan bazaar (the cross border market),” said a woman. “Our fighters are all talk and no action. They don’t have guns. All they do is get together and share rumors without going to Khorog,” said a female teacher. “I don’t want to see these guys get together in front of my house what if government troop comes and bombs my house,” said a young male public agency employee. “Kids in Khorog are nuts for throwing rocks at the soldiers. What is the point of religious education they get at school?” said a teacher who escaped from Khorog. ”If the Special Forces come they would not harm poor people. I hope they would get rid of the major drug dealer,” said a woman. Such were the opinions of current and former public and private agent employees, whom I call proletarians.

Once phones were cut off a real panic started that Ishkashim was next in line for the mop up operation. It is notable that all throughout this uncertainty people never stoked up on flour . People I talked were confident that supplies routes will open up soon. Very few who did stock up on flour became the target of ridicule . Women said to another women who bought two sacks of flour “you think I will starve and you survive. I will come and share your flour.” It was also amazing that public agency employees would show up to work when there was really nothing to do in the office with no internet or phone.

By way of conclusion

Paradoxically the cloud of uncertainty casting over Ishkashim those days was most notable for its stabilizing effect. Order didn’t break down. If there was any opportune time for the disenfranchised Pamiris to openly defy the corrupt government by supporting their co- ethnics in Khorog, taking hostage Tajik government officials or tearing down the pictures of Rahmon, July 24, 2012 was that time. None of that happened. Instead self-styled nascent and old fighters continued to sit on the fences and exchange rumors of war. Meanwhile amidst the crisis, the alleged weak local government tried to toe the line of the central government by dispatching its representatives to the villages to ensure sellers at the market would not raise food prices.

Most importantly, my observations were consistent with the idea that it is erroneous to assume that an ethnic group, at least in times of war, would behave as a unitary actor and an ethnic identity would predict individual behavior.2 Accounts of the conflict in Khorog tend to portray the war in clear cut terms: “restive, united Pamiris” versus the state, Shias versus Sunnis. We are told that the memory of collective trauma endured by the Pamiris during the civil war and relative deprivation thereafter reinforced the sense of united Pamiri identity during the crisis.

Framing the conflict in ethnic terms is a convenient but fallacious analytical turn to explain the uprising in Khorog. It is convenient because all who fought happened to be Pamiris and Shias, it is fallacious because it does not account for why the rest of Pamiris and Shias refrained from supporting their coethnics. If in fact “Pamiri ethnic identity” were a powerful motivating force and predictive of the behavior of the people of Pamir in times of crisis we would have seen the people of Ishkashim and other neighborhoods of Khorog enter the fray. Divergent reactions to conflict in Ishkashim and the fact that some co-ethnics were fighting and dying on both sides of the divide and other co-ethnics unwilling to mobilize against the government forces casts doubt on the assumption that Pamiri identity becomes potent once the ethnic group is besieged by a hostile force. Studies of civil war tell us that in times of war ethnic group attachment hinges on who controls the territory. It becomes strong if co-ethnics control the territory and weak, i.e., when ethnic defection occurs, when rival groups are in control. If neither side controls the territory, social order will be the equilibrium. Ishkashim was a typical case of a zone outside the control of either central government or the co-ethnic militia unit, hence the dominant survival strategy chosen by Ishkashimis was inaction and social order reigned supreme by default.

Navruz Nekbakhtshoev is a doctoral student in political science at Indiana University and earned his master’s degree in social and public policy at Duquesne University. He has been a research assistant for the Social Science Research Council Eurasia Project, an Aga Khan Foundation International Fellow, an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow, and has written for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He recently coauthored “Internet Libel Law and Freedom of Expression in Tajikistan” in After the Czars and Commissars: Journalism in Post-Soviet Authoritarian Central Asia, edited by Eric Freedman and Richard Schafer.

  1. For a comprehensive analysis of how the rise of subproletarians led to the escalation of violence in the Caucasus see Georgi Derluguian, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus. Can world-system theory and sociological fieldwork explain the bifurcating fates of the post-Soviet Caucasus?
  2. For an empirical analysis of how civil war determines the saliency of ethnic identity see Kalyvas, Stathis. 2008. “Ethnic Defection in Civil War.” Comparative Political Studies. Volume 41 Number 8

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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