Oil and Warlords in Tajikistan’s Countryside

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by Joshua Foust on 8/13/2012 · 11 comments

Canadian oil company Tethys Petroleum announced a few weeks ago that they think they may have identified what they believe to be significant gas and oil fields in Tajikistan:

The initial analysis of the data from the aerial graviometry survey completed at the end of 2011 revealed several attractive prospective areas with the potential presence of very large deep sub-salt and sub-thrust prospects within the Bokhtar Production Sharing Contract (“PSC”) Area. The additional seismic about to be acquired will target these areas and provide the final data in a comprehensive programme to optimally locate a deep well.

This final stage of the seismic programme will involve the acquisition of new seismic in two areas; the Vaksh valley and the Dushanbe Step. The programme has been designed to target these areas as the graviometry survey and other data have identified them to be the most likely to contain large deep prospects including potential Jurassic reefs located on the edge of likely Permian basement high features.

The find is important for several reasons, both good and bad. Most importantly, Tajikistan’s economy is not doing very well. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate hovers around 50% (though that is a dramatic improvement from the 72% poverty rate in 2003). the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced a new visa regime, which eliminates the need for a visa within the OECD. The intent is for visa-free travel to prompt more tourism, and thus more hard currency, for Tajikistan’s economy.

Tourism alone won’t boost Tajikistan’s economy. The business environment in Tajikistan is fledgling but it’s still growing (I interviewed the fascinating Chairwoman of the National Association of Small and Medium Business of Tajikistan, Matluba Uljabaeva, last November). But small businesses — the majority of Tajikistan’s economic activity — also won’t boost the economy. That’s where the excitement over the Tethys find comes into play: it has the potential to transform the country from unremarkable in terms of energy resources to, possibly, a globally significant one. And as Kazakhstan has found out over the last decade, oil means money.

That doesn’t mean oil will going to be good for Tajikistan. For years, Tajikistan has been embroiled in a very angry dispute with its neighbors over its domestic energy development. The Rahmon government has decided that the enormous Rogun hydroelectric dam, east of Dushanbe, is the key to solving its constant electricity shortages; Uzbekistan, however, thinks the dam will ruin its agricultural sector, which relies on the river Rogun will stop up for power generation (Uzbekistan relies on the river for its cotton production, which is both abusive towards the children forced to work in the fields and a major sector of the Uzbek economy).

Fozil Moshrab, an analyst based in Tashkent, notes how the prospective energy finds might affect the Tajik-Uzbek dispute:

Until now, Tajik officials’ trademark rhetoric has been that Tajikistan has no other option but to develop its hydroelectric power generating capacity as the country is not endowed with other alternative energy resources such oil and gas…

The discovery of large quantities of oil and gas will significantly weaken the Tajik government’s previous position such disputes, as its “no other option” argument will no longer be valid.

However, the government of Tajikistan has also negotiated a rail-and-energy agreement with Iran and Afghanistan. Under that agreement, which traded Tajikistan’s water in return for Iranian energy (while Afghanistan gets to benefit from both by being a transit country). Under that agreement, Tajikistan would send drinking water to Iran, which would in turn send back gas and oil. If Tajikistan has its own vast supply of energy, it’s unclear if or how that agreement will be affected in the long run (in the short run, all three countries still benefit from the trade agreement).

All of this depends on the oil and gas actually existing — and despite the promise of the seismic surveys, Tethys still needs to drill some holes in the ground to see what is really there.

Tajikistan’s fledgling energy development is happening mostly in the western half of the country. In the eastern part, there’s been all that instability in Khorog to contend with. It might be over, at least in large part: the warlord responsible for last month’s fighting, Tolib Ayombekov, has reportedly surrendered.

Speaking on television in Gorno-Badakhshan province, Ayombekov said he was giving himself up for the good of the nation, and urged other militants to lay down their weapons as well, the Khovar state news agency reported on August 13.

The warlord is injured and being treated in a hospital. Upwards of 70 people were killed in the fighting; at least three senior rebel leaders remain on the run from authorities.

The key thing to watch over the next several months will be Ayombekov’s trial. It’s unclear if he’ll really get a fair trial; those are pretty rare in Tajikistan. If he doesn’t get a fair trial, it could reignite the unrest near Khorog, leading to further violence.

This is Tajikistan today: a fascinating, worrying mix of unrest, mineral wealth, and — oh yeah — drug smuggling. It is a country with much promise, even if many of those promised have been broken over the last 15 years. And with the new oil and gas finds of the last few weeks, it looks set to become much more interesting.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Kbar August 13, 2012 at 11:30 am

The word “warlord”is used actually only in Afghanistan. To your information, Tolib Ayombekov was part of the Tajikistan Military system. So he’s a part of the government.

Let's be fair August 13, 2012 at 11:43 am

Tolib Ayombekov “worked” as a “warlord” during the Civil War 1992-1997. Those days the current president of RT was also acting as a “warlord”. Let’s call both of them as “warlords” or both of them as “government servicemen”.

Kulob August 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

“senior rebel leaders remain on the run from authorities.”
They are not. They gave a speech during the demonstration on saturday and will probably give a speech tomorrow. Right in the central square of the town.

Let's be fair August 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Two of the so called “senior rebels” _Tolib Ayombekov and Imum Imumnazaroz gave an interview to local media outlets recently. Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov made speech during the demonstration. What do you mean by “remain on the run”, please explain. Joshua Foust -please refer to our two pages on the Facebook “Peace in Khorog” and “Stop killing in Khorog” for current, unbiased information. We, the people of Khorog, need to tell the outside world that we are attacked without a reason, and trust me, I am just one of the citizens, no a “warlord” , no a friend and no a relative of them.

jonson August 14, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Dear friend,
Registan is the site which has the order to make bad image for Tajikistan and other neighborhood…Don’t worry about their writing, nobody pay such serious attention to their writing. They are unprofessional payed people and for them has no any meaning will they write about Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan….They get order to play their role and that all. They have no knowledge of region at all….and they doesn’t’ take care of it…

Nathan Hamm August 14, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Who, pray tell, is giving us these orders? I would hope that they are at least paying us well… Since you’re tuned in to special frequencies, would you please ask them to speed up the checks?

tnerb August 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

A good sense of humor.

Joshua Foust August 17, 2012 at 8:58 am

By the way, joining a government does not magically make you not a warlord, especially if you still command your own militias that kill government security officers.

I mean, as long as we’re being precise about the meaning of words.

tnerb August 17, 2012 at 11:50 am


I think we are splitting hairs here. If I know anything about the mentality of the (former Soviet) Central Asians they do not like being put in the same basket as Afghans. By using the word warlord to refer to a person from Tajikistan you are basically saying Tajikistan is the same as Afghanistan. There is a big reason why Tajikistan or any country in Central Asia doesn’t want to be in the same league as Afghanistan. For a Central Asian Afghanistan represents illiteracy, poverty and the fear of all fears – backwardness. Who in their right mind would want to be in the same league with a country that represents that? Do not forget that up until 1990s the region was much more in tune with Eastern Europe than with Middle East, Pakistan or Afghanistan even though the latter group of countries are just a stone throw away. The Iron curtain is your answer here. People used to watch Russian TV, eat Polish potatoes, wear Romanian shows, drink Czech beer and watch East German cartoons and movies. They didn’t have anything or wanted to have anything in common with Afghanistan that represented backwardness. I bet nobody wanted to cross the river into Afghanistan for a dose of fun, unless of course fun means getting stoned, speaking figuratively here…though come to think og it one could have gotten literally stoned too in Afghanistan.. But anyway, my point is it was much easier to travel half-way around the world to Yugoslavia than to neighboring Afghanistan because Yugoslavia was a satellite state and a progressive nation you can learn something from. In contrast what could Soviet Central Asia learn from Afghans? People grew up with mentality that being associated with some countries was good and West meant a better education, life standards and a better future while Afghanistan, Pakistan and any country in that area meant everything bad you can imagine. People in Central Asia even use the phrase “afghanizatsiya obshestva” or afghanization of the society in English, a code word for an ultimate fear factor, where society fails completely, illiterate, long-bearded, AK-47 wielding religious zealots take over the country, ban women from getting any education, put them all in burqas, ban music and anything fun. Central Asia wants to stay as far as possible from this type of mess and one thing they do is not being associated with Aghanistan. By using the word warlord you put them in the same group and your Tajik, Kyrgyz readers feel guilt by association. This is the reason why we have some emotional posts…

tnerb August 17, 2012 at 11:59 am

Excuse the typos above folks..

AS August 23, 2012 at 5:25 am

A fair trial? I mean SERIOUSLY, what does that even mean? Is that just euphemism for a result that the West finds palatable? Do you think there is any respect for the “law” in Tajikistan and that the vast majority of elites who running the country don’t violate it in spirit and letter every day? The reality of Tajikistan is that the law is not some holier-than-thou concept that serves as an equal arbiter for the empowered and the powerless, rather it is just a political tool exercised by elites to ensure various disputes are resolved in their favor.

There’s no doubt that Ayembekov was likely involved in criminal activities and has been breaking Tajik law for decades, but he supported GBAO and its people when the government completely abandoned them. Ayembekov was allowed to run his operations for years by the government, but now when the system turns against him it is clearly motivated by politics and not by some sort of desire for justice. In such a situation how can you ever expect a fair resolution?

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