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    Central Asia
     Aug 28, 2012

A playboy for the Pamirs
By M K Bhadrakumar

This has never before happened in Tajikistan - "People Power". The regime in Dushanbe retreated in the face of a groundswell of popular opinion. A precedent has been set, which has implications not only for the country but the region as a whole. The great game being played out in Central Asia acquires a new vector.

Last Thursday, when small groups of people began gathering in the central square in Tajikistan's eastern city of Khorog, the

capital of the remote Gorno-Badakshshan province in the Pamir Mountains, it seemed an innocuous walk in the afternoon.

But by Friday, the crowds grew bigger and bigger and were already several thousands strong. As the day wore on, they pitched tents and began preparing for what appeared to be the long haul in a pattern ominously reminiscent of "color revolutions".

In Dushanbe, alarm bells began ringing as if a the sound of distant drums carried by the wind blowing in from the Maghreb and North Africa across the vast expanse of the Greater Middle East were echoing in the silence of the Pamirs.

No more a 'Little Brother'
The milling crowds in Khorog's city square had a deceptively simple demand: Dushanbe should honor the terms of an earlier truce agreed with the armed groups in Gorno-Badakhshan and withdraw the government forces from the area and dismiss the region's top official. The truce had brought to an end the security operations began by the government last month in Gorno-Badakhshan.

By Saturday, the retreat of the Special Forces from Khorog was underway, following the signing of an agreement between the government and the leaders of the protest movement the previous evening "with participation of international organizations".

The Tajik government had portrayed the security operations as directed against fugitive Islamist warlords but the Pamiri saw them as the latest episode of the unresolved legacy of the Tajik Civil War that erupted in the aftermath of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and ended in 1997 on the basis of a reconciliation between the secularists and the Islamists brokered by the United Nations.

The point is, the cold peace that descended on the country in 1997 has gradually transformed as a systematic purge got under way in recent years involving the former Islamist fighters who were brought into the power structures within the framework of the peace accord. The Pamirs have been the stronghold of the Tajik opposition, and the local population views the latest security operation as a barely disguised attempt by the central government to hunt down the former commanders of the United Tajik Opposition and bring the remote region, which has been a largely de facto autonomous region, under its control.

Of course, Gorno-Badakhshan is also the route for the drug trafficking from Afghanistan and a thin line separates the local opposition commanders and organized crime-syndicates. But then, there is hardly anyone with authority or muscle power in Tajikistan who isn't tempted to make a living out of the trafficking of Afghan heroin.

What complicates the matrix are three factors. One, the region has considerable mineral wealth. Second, the Pamiri ethnic group is Shi'ite, belonging to the Ismaili sect, whereas Tajikistan is a Sunni-majority country. Three, the region comprises rugged mountain terrain that borders Afghanistan but the Tajik security forces are weak, ill-equipped and ill-trained and have not been able to cope with the security challenge in the past seven-year period since Dushanbe asked the Russian troops to leave. (Russian troops patrolled the Tajik-Afghan border until 2005.)

Each of these dimensions is fast assuming negative overtones. With the endgame in Afghanistan, a scramble for the mineral resources in Central Asia is about to erupt. Tajikistan used to be Russia's Little Brother in Central Asia, but the equations have changed and there are major irritants today in their dealings, as evident from the protracted, inconclusive negotiations so far for the extension of the lease of the Russian military bases.

'More faith and respect'
Meanwhile, China has significantly expanded its presence in Tajikistan and the United States also hopes to establish a long-term military presence in that country. The Russian experts are inclined to interpret the US moves in Tajikistan as directed exclusively against their country but that is being presumptuous.

Tajikistan is also a prospective link in the US' containment strategy toward China. In the short term, the Russian fears can be justified, but then, the US also has a game plan for Tajikistan that has got to do with the project for the "remaking of Central Asia" in a truly post-Soviet, pro-West direction that creates headaches for Beijing.

The Western discourses over the unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan have made it a point to underscore the Pamiri's Ismaili identity, and alongside there has been a studied projection of the Aga Khan as the spiritual leader to Ismaili Muslims. Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe has cited speculation that the "Gorno-Badakhshan Ismailis might seek independence from Tajikistan, exploiting the country's political instability during the 1992-1997 civil war."

Last week, in an extraordinary commentary profiling the Aga Khan, it thumb-sketched the prince - a jet-setting playboy who takes keen interest in beautiful women, breeds racehorses and owns fast cars - as a genuine philanthropist in whom the local population in Gorno-Badakhshan would have "more faith and respect" than for Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon.

It is difficult to gauge the authenticity of such profound assessments, but the region has surely become the playpen of Western intelligence. The Aga Khan, by the way, is a multi-millionaire British citizen with extensive business activities.

A point of incessant interest for the West will be Moscow's ability to swing a deal with Rahmon to extend the Russian military presence in Tajikistan. Equally, the West would ideally like to see Russia quitting the Soviet-era Okno ("Window") complex in Nurek, which is capable of detecting, identifying and finding orbits of space objects of 1 meter size (such as military satellites) located 2,000-40,000 km high.

The Pentagon knows Moscow will be hard-pressed to replace Nurek, a location of such atmospheric properties and parameters of transparency and stability and number of clear night hours (over 1,500 hours), except, perhaps, somewhere in the Caucasus. It took over a decade to construct the Okno after the place was chosen in 1970.

Suffice to say, the political volatility in Gorno-Badakhshan and the dangerous security situation in the region - an Ismaili "belt" runs down through Afghanistan to Pakistan's Northern Areas - could be used by unfriendly powers to act as pressure point on Rahmon to reset his alliance with Moscow.

This probably explains the alacrity with which Moscow played down the popular surge in Khorog over the weekend. However, in a longer term, questions marks are indeed appearing about Tajikistan's stability and viability as a nation state.

There has been an all-round failure of governance and against the overall backdrop of Tajikistan's steady decline as a "failed state", separatist sentiment could well rear its head in Gorno-Badakhshan, which is an isolated, impoverished region of rugged mountains several hundred kilometers from Dushanbe with a sparse population of a quarter of a million people only, but comprises 44% of the country's land mass and connected to the rest of the country by a solitary highway.

A tangle difficult to untie
If political separatism gains ground in Gorno-Badakhshan, there is big trouble ahead for all of Central Asia, since Tajikistan also has an ethnic Uzbek minority population of over a million, which would also seek union with Uzbekistan. Dushanbe has all along suspected Tashkent as covertly fueling the Uzbek separatist sentiments.

Looking ahead, therefore, if Tajikistan fragments, the repercussions will be keenly felt in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan (which are alienated from the north of the country) and in Ferghana Valley (which is carved out between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The tremors won't end there, because Josef Stalin had ensured that there are Uzbek minorities present in all the Central Asian countries outside Uzbekistan.

Thus, the intentions of Uzbekistan, which is the strongest military power in Central Asia, already cause uneasiness in the Tajik and Kyrgyz mind. Uzbekistan's recent decision to suspend its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and its lukewarm attitude to participation in the military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are conveying strong signals.

What perturbs Dushanbe and Bishkek even more is the strategic import of the proximity that is rapidly developing between Uzbekistan and the US. A US-Uzbek axis would upset the region's balance of power. The relations between Uzbekistan on one side and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other have touched a dangerously low point in the recent period.

Conversely, the dilemma that is facing the US is how to pursue the promise of long-term strategic ties with Tashkent, while stringing Bishkek and Dushanbe along. This is by no means an easy diplomatic tangle for Washington to handle, since Tashkent is also not to be trusted as an enduring ally, given its maverick behavior.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be undertaking a delicate diplomatic mission when she visits Tashkent and Dushanbe in October with the intent of finessing the Uzbek-Tajik discords and bringing them somehow below an acceptable threshold for the Pentagon to work on creating its "lily pads" in both the Central Asian countries.

Washington would hope that before it finishes the work in progress to establish its long-term military presence in the region and before Clinton travels to the region, Moscow doesn't wrap up a deal with Dushanbe. Equally, Moscow will be racing against time in the coming weeks and months to create the underpinnings that would tie down Tajikistan to a long-term partnership with Russia.

The fact of the matter is that Moscow has subjected Russia's relationship with Tajikistan to a long period of neglect after raising high hopes in Dushanbe during President Vladimir Putin's landmark visit a decade ago. Again, the stakes are high for Putin's project of creating a Eurasian Union in the post-Soviet space (which of course Washington is determined to frustrate).

Moscow has achieved remarkable success lately on the path of bringing Kyrgyzstan back into its orbit. The process will continue in the coming months unless the latest turbulence in Kyrgyz politics doesn't complicate matters. With the job well in hand, Russian diplomacy toward Tajikistan can be expected to attempt a similar approach toward Tajikistan - a strategic partnership with underpinnings of economic assistance and investment in an overall matrix of strong political support embedded within a long-term military presence.

Meanwhile, Moscow will do well to ensure that the Gorno-Badakhshan situation is calmed and does not upset the apple cart.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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