A new Big Game on the roof of the world
МОСКВА, 25 февраля 2022, Институт РУССТРАТ.
The negotiations of the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan with local residents who stood up for the protection of a fellow countryman went on for two days and ended in vain. Khorog, the administrative centre of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), understands well what this means.
According to the information of RUSSTRAT, law enforcement is concentrating additional forces and military equipment in the region. In Khorog itself, a block in the Dashti Bolo district is blocked, where the family of the informal leader of the Gorno-Badakhshan Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov (he is simply called Bokir) lives and there are six of his supporters, whose extradition is demanded by the authorities.
This is the second military operation in six months in a mountainous area located at the crossroads of the borders of China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The scenarios are similar: every time the central authorities take aim at a local leader, the population comes out to defend him, and protests spill out in all cities where there are representatives of the Badakhshan diaspora: from Moscow to London. From whom is the area being cleaned so thoroughly and why does the situation not become more tense after these sweeps? Maybe there are a lot more players.
The confrontation between the GBAO and the authorities in Dushanbe did not begin today, it is worth counting from the collapse of the USSR. It’s simple: in Soviet times, the region was completely subsidised — the highlands, the objective limitations of local resources, problems with communications… The Soviet government dragged it all out, and the new authorities began to pay much less money and attention to GBAO.
The region was impoverished and mastered life according to the rules dictated by time. Informal leaders appeared who, according to their laws, solved the problems of ordinary people that the authorities did not solve. This continued until the Tajik authorities in the last ten years slowly but consistently began to monopolise the entire political space in the republic. The confrontation began. Those who used to live without regard for the federal authorities did not want to give up their positions, demanding more independence than they had. Mutual accusations of smuggling drugs and weapons followed, the authorities accused the locals of having links with various religious radical groups.
The scenario, we can say, is typical for post-Soviet times, but the specifics of GBAO are important here. As an independent administrative unit, this region arose at the end of the 19th century, when in 1873 in London, Russian and British diplomats, after long disputes, signed an agreement on the division of spheres of influence in Central Asia. In fact, the geopolitical rivals in the «Big Game» drew a kind of «red line», which they agreed not to cross. It passed along the Pamir-Panj- Amu-Darya rivers, then into the Turkmen deserts. According to the agreement, the mountainous region was divided into two parts: one went to Afghanistan, which was part of the zone of British influence, the second — to Russia. After the revolution, it came under the jurisdiction of the USSR.
This is not all the specifics. The overwhelming majority of the population of Badakhshan professes Ismailism — one of the directions of Shiism in Islam. Ismailism has left a big imprint on the spiritual culture of the Badakhshans, it can be called one of the ethnic symbols. Here, in particular, the role of spiritual mentors — peers and caliphs is very important. The main spiritual leader for the Gorno-Badakhshans is Shah Karim Hussein Aga Khan IV. He lives in London, but does not leave his co-religionists and helps them through his foundation — the Aga Khan Foundation. This fund and its managers still have enormous influence in GBAO.
It is worth noting that there is also its own specifics. The Aga Khan is a long-time trusted client of British intelligence MI6. Sources say that he became a student at Harvard University under the patronage of MI6, where he specialised in the history of the East. After studying for a little over a year, he went on his first business trip to Pakistan. He himself explained this by the fact that he has a great desire to get acquainted with the life and life of those whom he considers his brothers and sisters. After three years of acquaintance with the region and the official inauguration of the Ismaili imam, the ceremony of which was held in Dar es Salaam (Tanganyika), he resumed his studies at Harvard (in 1958). Later he returned to London. In 1983, being one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), he convinced the Pakistani government to create two national parks in the northern part of Chitral province — just on the Afghan border. This remote area was not distinguished by the abundance of wildlife or the presence of endangered species, and the flow of ecotourists dried up as a result of the war. But on the other hand, Chitral was known for the abundance and quality of opium poppy, which the Mujahideen diligently cultivated. And here the routes of arms smuggling to Afghanistan began… Aga Khan IV was the patron of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
And if certain Foundation managers represent Aga Khan IV in the Pamirs, then Aga Khan IV himself, in turn, represents MI6 in the region.
Oddly enough, but this intricate formula for the distribution of power for the time being generally worked. So, in 2012, after the murder in GBAO of the head of the local department of the State Committee for National Security, General Nazarov, Dushanbe sent troops to Khorog. It came to an assault, the city put up a strong resistance. Dozens of people were killed, the assault was stopped. Weeks of negotiations with the mediation of the Aga Khan Foundation followed, and eventually the troops left Khorog. And after the appointment of a representative of the Aga Khan Foundation, Yodgor Fayzov, as the head of GBAO in 2018, the riots stopped altogether.
In other words, a certain consensus of the central government was reached not only with the Badakhshan Ismailis, but also with the British foreign intelligence service MI6. And this consensus was valid until 2021, when Yodgor Fayzov was dismissed, which immediately caused riots.
No one hears the Colonel
If we compare the events in the region, everything is easily visible: the Badakhshan consensus began to fail after the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan at the end of the summer of 2021. Fayzov, being at that time the head of GBAO, sheltered a large number of refugees from this country in the region. Khorog began to be called a refuge for Afghans.
All this is in the context of an extremely difficult situation in which Tajikistan found itself after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Let me remind you: one of the main opponents of the Taliban in the civil war remains the Tajik and Hazara (also Shiites and Ismailis) resistance, and at that time the Taliban did not say at all where they would stop. In general, such hospitality of an official, behind whose back there is not only the Aga Khan, but also MI6, could not but alert Dushanbe. There were rumours about the preparation of an uprising of local Ismailis. Worse — about the redistribution of drug trafficking in Afghanistan.
In general, the official was sent into retirement from sin. After that, Fayzov disappeared from the region, leaving also the management of the Aga Khan Foundation. The mayor of Khorog (and, in fact, the head of the region) Rizo Nazarzoda was appointed. And instead of Fayzov, a serious man, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, took over the head of the Aga Khan Foundation. He is a former field commander who, after the end of the civil war and the signing of the 1997 Inter-Tajik Agreement, successfully integrated into the power structures of Tajikistan. He rose to the rank of colonel of the border troops of the National Security Committee, but at the same time, according to rumours, he retained control over an organised group that significantly affects the situation in GBAO.
What is he accused of today? Criminal cases have been initiated against 58-year-old Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov and six of his supporters for organising mass riots in November 2021 in Khorog. The suspects themselves call the accusations groundless, and they see the reason for the conflict in Dushanbe’s intention to liquidate GBAO and appoint another corrupt official as the head of the region. Mamadbokirov also claims that the government’s henchmen are connected with crime through drug trafficking and arms trafficking.
This local confrontation is escalating every day and threatens to blow up the region. Although the incident itself, on the basis of which a case was initiated against the ex-colonel under four articles of the Criminal Code, is prosaic (it was the statement of the head of the GBAO Education Department Lutfullo Navruzov about the beating): the case has reached the state level. According to the prosecutor, Mamadbokirov «ignores the demands of the investigating authorities and does not appear for questioning”. Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda came to Khorog to negotiate the surrender of the retired colonel to the bodies of inquiry. The minister even offered to replace the criminal prosecution with an administrative fine in return for the ex-colonel’s assistance in transferring his six supporters to the authorities.
However, Mamadbokirov flatly rejected the proposal, saying that it contradicts his «life principles». After that, the minister gave a one-week deadline for the voluntary surrender of Mamadbokirov with his associates — otherwise force will be used. Representatives of the local clergy ask to abandon the forceful scenario, assuring that it is fraught with destabilisation of the region and even the republic.
The contrast between the scale of the confrontation and the banality of the occasion, as well as the cyclical nature of the crises in GBAO suggests that the detention of Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov is only one of the steps in the «pacification» of the rebellious region. Consensus management scenarios have stopped working. This is also supported by the fact that the so-called «Group 44» or «Commission 44», created on November 28, 2021 for the joint settlement of the situation in the region, is currently considered by the authorities as an opposition force. At the same time, the authorities claim that «the information about the buildup of power structures in Khorog is a lie”.
«The situation is stable: people are busy with their daily chores. There is a group living abroad that is trying in every way to discredit the efforts of the authorities and provoke an internal confrontation …» according to the press secretary of the chairman of GBAO Golib Niyatbekov.
It is quite difficult to judge the current state of affairs in an area where the Internet has been disconnected since the autumn crisis. But the true reasons for the next aggravation in GBAO are visible: the central government seeks to completely subdue Gorno-Badakhshan and uses all opportunities for this. Including speeches in the pro-government media of residents of the GBAO, Darvaz and Vanj districts with the initiative to withdraw from the administrative subordination of GBAO and join the Khatlon region of Tajikistan. This, in principle, contradicts Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic.
«The territory of Tajikistan is indivisible and inviolable…The state ensures the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Republic. Propaganda and actions aimed at dividing the unity of the state are prohibited,» the article says.
In this regard, it is important to recall that the division of Gorno-Badakhshan along the Panj River into almost equal parts by Russia and Britain in 1873 lasted a century and a half. Then the northern part went to the Russian Empire, the southern part was ruled by the emirs of Afghanistan, who were at that time under the influence of British India. In addition, the parties later formed the Wakhan Corridor. It was, in fact, about the buffer zone between the empires, which now separates Tajikistan from Pakistan, and in the east borders with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China.
In July 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan part of the Wakhan Corridor, where Ismailis also live. They went without war and shooting to those areas where they had never been before. Wakhan, by the way, is a zone of China’s interests. The appearance of the Taliban in Wakhan is definitely a threat to Chinese Xinjiang. China’s reaction turned out to be quite expected after the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. The Chinese immediately agreed with Tajikistan, and the former USSR border post in the Murghob district, near the village of Shaimak, moved away from the Tajiks to the Chinese. In return, they intend to build a second base for the Tajiks. In October last year, the Parliament of Tajikistan gave permission for its construction in Wakhan. Given the fact that the Gorno-Badakhshan Ismailis maintain close relations with the Aga Khan IV Foundation, it is possible that MI6 benefits from the militarisation of this corridor and the involvement of China in a possible violent conflict. The possible task of this new «Big Game» is to plunge the border region into chaos. An important question: will Tajikistan be able to resist this alone?
Elena Panina, Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute