Tajikistan is situated between the five historic empires of Asia: Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, Iran and India to the south, China to the south-east. The civil war in the country may have cost as many as 30.000 people their lives in 1992 alone. Among Russian and CIS peacekeeping and peace enforcement activities, this one is the most costly in military terms has been the one in Tajikistan.
This working paper presents the roots of the conflict, discusses how Russia and the CIS got involved, and shows that, although the military involvement of approximately 25. 000 mainly Russian troops has probably contributed substantially to keeping an unstable peace, the lack of impartiality and an operational peacekeeping doctrine does not allow the categorisation of the operation as a peacekeeping one in any traditional sense of that concept. Among Russian and CIS peacekeeping and peace enforcement activities, the most costly in military terms has been the one in Tajikistan. The military engagement matches the proportions of the human losses in the area: according to former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullojanov, 30.000 people were killed only in 1992.
A further 70.000 or more migrated from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, whence only perhaps 30.000 have returned. All in all, hundreds of thousands, perhaps as much as half a million people out of an overall population of 5. 3 million, may have been displaced at one time since independence. This chapter will discuss the roots of the civil war, the Russian and CIS military involvement in the interior of the country, and also their border-guarding undertaking along the 1200 kilometer long border with Afghanistan to the south.
In conclusion, it will be argued that although the military involvement of approximately 25.000 mainly Russian troops has probably contributed substantially to keeping an unstable peace, the lack of impartiality and an operational peacekeeping doctrine does not allow the categorisation of the operation as a peacekeeping one in any traditional sense of that concept.
Thus, whereas we have stuck to the epithet ‘peacekeeping’ when we want to reflect the usage among Russian and CIS sources, we have insisted on ‘peace enforcement’ in the title as well as in places where it is our own assessment of the undertaking in a global comparative perspective which comes to the fore. On a more tangential note, we use ‘region’ to denote now parts of Tajikistan, now Central Asia in its entirety.
The rest of this introduction lodges Tajikistan in its historical, geographical and ethnic regional setting, in the latter sense of that word. Tajikistan is situated between the five historic empires of Asia: Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, Iran and India to the south, China to the south-east.
Areas which presently make up Tajikistan have roughly been parts of the Russian empire since 1868. Following the turmoil of revolution and civil war, where Khojand as an old centre of exile for enemies of the tsarist state played the role of regional mainstay for the new Soviet power, Tajikistan took its place inside the Soviet Union. Thus, for 125 years Russia has wielded a measure of control in this part of the world. Half of Tajikistan is situated in the Pamir foothills.
The other half of the country lies above 3000 meters, and most of this land is to be found in the Gorno-Badakhshan region stretching up into the Pamir mountains and bordering on China and Afghanistan. Gorno-Badakhshan is separated from Pakistan only by the contested Afghan Vakhan corridor. The valleys alone, perhaps some 15% of the territory, are permanently inhabited. A number of Tajiks reside outside of Tajikistan.
Of Afghanistan’s three million Persian-speakers, most identify as Tajikis, and according to official Uzbekistani figures, there are some 700.000 Tajikis living in that country, lready down from the 930.000 which were reported in the last Soviet census of 1989). Tajiki ethnographers, on the other hand, maintain that the last number may be as high as three million, depending on how one separates Uzbeks from Tajiks.
In the Tajikistan lowlands and border areas there are large numbers of Uzbeks; in Kurgan-Tyube, more than 30% declare themselves to be of this ethnicity. Incidents of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Tajiks by ethnic Uzbeks have been known to take place. A recurrent theme in Uzbek nationalist rhetoric is that Tajiks are simply Persianised Uzbekis – that is, Turkic peoples who have succumbed to Persian cultural pressured and have taken on foreign ways. It goes without saying that such theories, emanating from the titular nation of a 20 million strong neighbouring state, are hardly popular with ethnic Tajiks, and especially not among those who are intent on furthering Tajik nation-building (Subtelny 1994).
The Bukhara khanate, which ruled some of the area around today’s Tajikistan from the 15th and well into the 18th century, is an undertaking often enrolled by Uzbek politicians in their own nation-building work.2 However, it makes little sense to talk about Bukhara and Samarkand as mainstays of the Uzbek nation for two reasons, both of which are relevant for an understanding of today’s situation. First, it makes little sense to talk about ‘nations’ in this area of the world before this political category was forced on the indigenous populations as an organising principle by Stalin in the 1920 and 1930s. Secondly, the majority and leading circles of these two towns were actually Persian-speaking.
Speaking some variant of Persian was the criterion Stalin used when he initiated Tajiki nation-building in the 1920s. Thus, the disparate groups huddled together in the Tajikistani Autonomous Republic inside Uzbekistan from 1924 to 1929 may also claim the Bukhara and Samarkand khanates as political forerunners (Akiner 1983).3 The very fact that Tajikistan was located inside Uzbekistan may, however, serve as precedents for Uzbekistani pretentions in the area. So may the fact that the Uzbek capital Tashkent served as an organisational hub for the entire Soviet Central Asia, housing, for example, the Turkestan Military District headquarters.
To present the country in terms of ethnic categories such as ‘Tajikis’ and ‘Uzbekis’ is already to impose a set of foreign Western terms on an unwilling Tajikistani reality (Atkin 1993). Over the last 200 years, the idea that a group of people which shares a common language and culture for this reason alone should and must gather in ‘their own’ state has grown so strong that it is hard to grasp that politics may also be organised along other lines than the national ones. The clash of the idea of ‘the nation’, brought to Central Asia in the 1920s by the unlikely figure of Joseph Stalin, clashed with the existence of multiple loyalties. In Tajikistan, it never sprouted deep roots.
The tension between the imposed and idealised idea of a Tajik ‘nation’ on the one hand and the unrelenting importance of competing Tajiki regional identities on the other, is one of the two dramas of Tajikistani politics. The other drama is partly a result of the instability resulting from the first, and is to do with the way outside powers like Russia, Uzbekistan and Afghan-based warlords take advantage of Tajikistan’s civil war to enhance their own presence in the country. This section will elaborate on the former and the next on the latter of these dramas. Although there exists a Tajik ‘nation’ on paper, the work of what one may call Tajik ‘nation builders’ – politicians who seek to streamline disparate dialects, variants of Islam and other cultural mores into a more easily governable whole – has not proceeded very far.
A key example is Gorno-Badakhshan, a region which formed an autonomous district (avtonomnaya oblast’) inside the Tajikistani Soviet Socialist Republic and vainly tried to increase its autonomy in 1991-1993. ‘Gorno-Badakhshani’ is state-speak. ‘Pamiri’ is an epithet which comes into use in contexts which also include people from outside Gorno-Badakhshan. In local contexts, the around 200. 000 ‘Pamiri’ are Shughnani and Wakhi (reciding in the western and central parts) Yazgholami and Darwasi (in the northern part bordering Afghanistan, and also in the region of Gharm), and Ishqashimi. They speak Eastern Iranian languages which are referred to eponymously (Atkin 1994).
In addition to language and territory, a diacritic which often comes into play is religion – all these groups are Ismaili Shiites, and not Hanafi Sunni as is the majority of Tajiks. Ismaili Shia was brought to the area by the poet Nasir Khosrow during the seventeenth century.
Then again in another region, Kurgan-Tyube, the standard view of origin is that it is Arabic rather than Persian. The situation, then, is that in the hierarchy of identities in this part of the world, the national identity is weak, and not priviliged above the others in the same way as it is in Europe. This is not to say that a Tajik identity does not exist – it does indeed, and it comes into play for example when talk turns to relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan. However, whereas for example in Serbia, Serbian identity would very often be so strong as to forge most or even all Serbs against Croats in a conflict, in Tajikistan the regional identity of people for example in the Leninabad region may in some cases drive them to join forces with Uzbekis against other Tajiks.
Thus, the weak status of the Tajik nation and the tenuous grip of the Tajikistani state on Tajik society are among the main factors which make local politics a very different animal from what it is in Europe. The main identity is the regional one, but the regions do not coincide with the administrative regions. ‘Identity regionalism’ is a lose translation of the local term mahalgaroi. Little work has been done on how it was generated.
For centuries, mountain ranges have hampered the possibilities for communication between valleys, facilitating social organisation in valley communities. One hypothesis is that this general pattern congealed in a new constellation during the 1920s and the 1930s, as part of the military resistance to Sovietisation. Whereas basmachi referred to the resistance movement as such, mahalgaroi referred to specific military attachments and ‘laid the foundation for exercising local power over extended families, with groups based on blood and geographical origins’ as some observers have it (Jawad & Tadjbakhsh 1995:13). The six main identity regions are Kulyab, Gharm, Gorno-Badakhshan ( or ‘Pamir’), Kurgan-Tyube, Leninabad and Hissar.
People keep their regional identification when they move to Dushanbe and other centres, so that on the elite level, representatives of these groups may be found in any larger town. Thus, although these identity regions are territorially based, they are sometimes referred to inaccurately as ‘clans’. They consist of a core of key elite families, and a host of other families which may be blood relatives or simply hangers-on for economic or political reasons. One loose parallel which may shed light on this structure is the phenomenon of the mafia family, which often has a core consisting of a biological family, but which is also so amorphous as to be a family first and foremost in the symbolic sense.
The infighting between the different identity regions has led to different power constellations between them. In Brezhnev’s time, the Leninabadis drew on good relations with Uzbeks and Russians as well as support from the Kulyabis in order to hold sway inside the communist party. Leninabadis and Kulyabis used their control of the political apparatus to channel economic investment from Moscow into their own regions, which further strengthened their power vis-à-vis the other identity regions, which in turn further strengthened resentment towards the Leninabadis and Kulyabis amongst the other mahalgaroi. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 onwards, the religious fissures inside that country provided an opportunity for the Gorno-Badakhshanis to strengthen their hand.
Gorno-Badakhshanis are Ismaili Muslims, as are a number of people in Afghanistan. Religious affiliations inside Afghanistan played a role in determining who opposed and who fought the government. Generally, Afghan Ismailis supported the communist government brought to power by the Soviets, and so their brothers in faith across the border in Tajikistan received a new card to play in their local power struggles inside Tajikistan itself. This strengthened the standing of Tajikistan’s Ismaili Gorno-Badakhshanis inside Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB.
Gorno-Badakhshanis and Gharmis also held another power card inasmuch as they were overrepresented in the Tajik cultural intelligentsia, simply because such a high number of intellectuals from other identity-regions gave priority to participating in cultural activities conducted in Russian or Uzbek. With perestroyka, the other identity regions saw an opportunity to challenge the party structure, which was in the hands of Leninabadis and Kulyabis. They organised in various organisations, three of which were especially important. The Rebirth Movement (Rastakhiz) was dominated by Gharmis, Gorno-Badakhshanis and other Tajik intellectuals interested in further nation-building.
The Islamic Renaissance Party was also dominated by Gharmis. The Democratic Party was dominated by Gorno-Badakhshanis, as was the Lali Badakhshan, an organisation advocating autonomy for this region (Chicherina 1990). The last years of perestroyka and the Soviet Union saw a power struggle erupt between the Leninabadis, the Kulyabis and eventually the Hissaris on the one hand (‘the communists’ reorganised in a new People’s Front), and the Gharmis and the Gorno-Badakhshanis on the other (‘the opposition’). Since liberal intellectuals and Muslim elders made up the leadership of the opposition, the latter camp is often referred to as an alliance of democrats and Islamists.
This should not, however, be taken to indicate that this was basically a struggle of ideas. Rather, various ideological movements like communism, democracy and Islamism served as nests or power containers for identity-region politics. Initially, it looked like there was a chance that Tajikistan may emerge out of the Soviet rubble with a government consisting of representatives from a variety of identity regions. Indeed, in 1991 and 1992 uneasy compromises were made, and a certain balance reigned.
In relative regional terms, Tajikistan was considered to have a fairly functional multiparty system in 1990 and 1991 (Martin 1993). After the November 1991 presidential election, when the former Communist party leader and Leninabadi Rakhmon Nabiev won, Leninabadis and Kulyabis (‘the communists’) sought to eliminate political opposition within the parliament and government. As a consequence demonstrators began its siege of the parliament in late March 1992, followed by a counter-demonstration organized by the government (Brown 1992). The prospects of civil war received a push forward when the successor to the Tajik KGB began to distribute large quantities of arms and ammunition to pro-governmental demonstrators on 3 May 1992.
However, Nabiev was forced to form a coalition government on 6 May 1992 in which eight of twenty-four posts went to the Gorno-Badakhshani- and Gharmi-based opposition of democratic, nationalist, and Islamic parties and groups that had been demonstrating in Dushanbe since late March. However, this compromise did not satisfy either side. Leninabadis and Kulyabis reacted to violence in the countryside and sit-in demonstrations in Dushanbe by using their contacts with the armed forces and the good access to weapons generally to arm their followers indiscriminately. The opposition availed themselves of similar opportunities in the degree that they could, and a full-scale civil war erupted.
Fighting began in earnest in May l992. During the summer of 1992, the southern part of the country, particularly Kurgan-Tyube, was devastated by fighting between armed groups. Russian and CIS responses to the conflict Russia justifies its activity and involvement in Tajikistan by the principles of Chapter 51 of the UN Charter, and by multilateral and bilateral agreements within the CIS, the English unofficial translations of which refer to peacekeeping (see introductory chapter). Two major and general problems immediately present themselves.
First, the Russian term used to refer to UN as well as to CIS activities in this regard is mirotvorchestvo. The late Brezhnevian edition of the standard Russian-English dictionary does not list this word, but gives mirotvorets as ‘peacemaker’ (Smirnitskiy 1981:290). The last Soviet edition of the standard Russian dictionary does not list mirotvorchestvo either, but adds about mirotvorets that it is an ‘archaic and ironic’ term (Ozhegov 1990:356). In Soviet times, when what was called the ‘struggle for peace’ was seen as a class undertaking, there was little room in political discourse where a Soviet conception of and doctrine for international peacekeeping could be evolved.
It was only with the change in Soviet attitudes towards the UN under Gorbachev that such a room opened up. In the case of mirotvorchestvo, then, we have a word that has taken on new meanings in very recent years. It is used both to denote consciousness-raising and educational activities related to peace-building (where it incidentlly substitutes for the Leninist term bop’ba za mir – the struggle for peace), and to all manners of what in English specialist parlance is known as peacekeeping, wider peacekeeping, peace enforcement etc. The lack of linguistic specificity indicates the very broad-gauge Russian conceptual approach to peacekeeping.
Whereas particularly British and French but also to some extent American and Scandinavian military milieux have drawn on years of experience with peacekeeping to conduct a finely grained taxonomic debate about which operations should classify as peacekeeping, peace enforcing etc. in the years following the end of the Cold War, Russia, as a newcomer to the field, has not evolved a similar debate. There exists a haziness about what peacekeeping is generally considered to be in UN English-speaking parlance. The second major problem, then, is to do with the immediate contradiction between evoking Chapter 51 of the UN Charter on the one hand, and calling an operation a peacekeeping one on the other.
Chapter 51 is about self defence of vital national interests against an aggressor. Peacekeeping, on the other hand, is in all its varieties about umpiring conflicts. The UN-focussed debate of the last five years has mainly been about how partial and activist the umpire may be before the operation is no longer a peacekeeping one, but rather a case of peace enforcement. Peace enforcement may in turn shade into traditional warfighting, where the umpire gives up all pretense of umpiring and becomes a regular player.
It should be clear, therefore, that in UN parlance, the same operation cannot at the same time be seen as a Chapter 51-style operation and a peacekeeping one. Yet, although these are mutually exclusive ways of denoting the conflict, Russia has at no time tried to resolve this contradiction between the broad-guage Russian use of mirotvorchestvo (‘peacekeeping’) for all conflicts that are not traditional warfighting on the one hand, and the steadily more specialised UN-based use of ‘peacekeeping’ on the other.
In the conclusion, be will argue that Russia could have avoided this contradiction by denoting the border operations of the border guards simply as a case of the use of force under Chapter 51, and the operation in the interior of the 201st division based in Dushanbe and related detachments as a peacekeeping one. If Russia and the CIS had attempted such a procedure, the question of whether the latter operation could have been characterised as a peacekeeping one would have rested squarely on the question of partiality.
In that case, it would at least in principle have been possible to refer to it as peacekeeping in UN parlance. However, as Russia and the CIS never attempted to disentangle these two aspects of the situation either in theory or in practice, it is ipso facto impossible to refer to it as a case of UN-style peacekeeping. If only for this reason, whereas Moscow has managed to obtain cooperation from international institutions where questions of negotiations between the warring parties is concerned, it has not received the international endorsement for which it had hoped. In terms of military activity, the story of the Russian involvement is one of a deferrence of activities from the interior to the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
As the situation in Tajikistan destabilised, in Moscow references were frequently made to the Treaty on Collective Security of May 1992, concluded in Tashkent as a response to the break-up of the Soviet Union but also with an eye on the situation in Tajikistan. This treaty was one of the two pillars of Russian security policy towards Central Asia – the other was bilateral treaties concluded with all the countries save Tajikistan during the same summer (Page 1994: 793).
The principle of combining bilateral treaties with an overall multilateral one is well tested, and was, for example, the formal set-up for the Soviet Union’s relations with other members of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation during the cold war. Initially problems of internal stability were delegated to the government in Dushanbe to resolve, yet there were also references to the need for the Tajik authorities to introduce an emergency regime in the border areas.
How Russia and the CIS had themselves involved On 3 September 1992, the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgisia and Uzbekistan issued a communiqué where they termed the fighting a danger to the entire Commonwealth of Independent States and stated their intention of intervening if the fighting could not be brought to a halt. As the only former Soviet central Asian state, Turkmenistan kept its distance from the undertaking, ostensibly thinking that its petroleum-based economy gave it enough leeway to stay aloof from the military involvement of the others.
Apart from restoring internal order, the reasons given for the resolve of the communiqué were large-scale smuggling of narcotics and arms from the south (that is, Afghanistan). The forces at hand for the job were, first, the old Soviet 201st motorized rifle division, which was based in Dushanbe and had never left.
Secondly, there was the border guard along the 1200 kilometer long border with Afghanistan, which had in Soviet times been a detachment of the KGB and was now reporting elsewhere to the Interior Ministry. Once the latter was reinforced with an extra 1000 troops a few days later, this brought a protest from Iran. On 19 September, acting Supreme Soviet chairman and head of state Akbarsho Iskanderov, a Gorno-Badakhshani, called on the CIS troops to assist his interior ministry troops in guarding key public installations. This they duly did.
He also wanted them to put down the fighting in Kurgan-Tyube, but the CIS high command did not respond to these calls. On the contrary, there are reports that the 201st motorised rifle division may have equipped Kulyabi forces loyal to Nabiev with four tanks and six armoured personnel carriers, which were immediately used in the decisive subjugation of Kurgan-Tyube. The commander of the division insisted that they had been stolen at gunpoint – an interesting assertion coming from a responsible soldier. Be that as it may, Russia certainly rebuffed Iskanderov’s attempts to buy heavy arms.
At the end of the month, 1500 additional troops were sent from Moscow to assist those already there, and CIS troops took over the guarding of the Dushanbe airport. The CIS troops were put in abeyance for a few days in early October as the CIS discussed the situation at a summit meeting in Bishkek. It was then agreed that defending the common external border of the CIS was a common concern, that a CIS peacekeeping force should be sent as soon as a ‘legitimate authority’ in Tajikistan requested one, and that CIS troops already there should remain until further notice. With direct backing from the Uzbekistan military, an attempt was made to remove Iskanderov from power.
He held out until 16 November, when he was ousted and the Kulyabi Emomali Rakhmonov, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, was installed. However, heavy fighting continued throughout 1992, with Uzbekistan’s military high command intermittently involved in Kulyabi fighting activities (Hiro 1995: 213-218). It would be wrong to put Uzbekistan’s engagement down to offensive pretentions only. The present Uzbekistani president, Islam Karimov, has fought down his own motley opposition of ‘democrats’ and Muslim leaders, and is wary of the possibility that Tajikistani Islamicists may inflict their message onto Uzbekistan from the east.
Karimov’s anxiety of ethnic and religious spill-over has made him pursue two different strategies. First, as the war escalated, he tried to seal off Uzbekistan from all contact with Tajikistan. Tajik-language schools were closed, planes were denied landing rights, and overland transport was also severely restricted. However, as it became obvious that Tajikistan was disintegrating, Karimov switched to a strategy of active involvement.
Whereas Uzbekistan has clearly followed its own agenda, it has done so by tailing Russia. The crucial event in the series leading up to Iskanderov’s fall was the meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev with the Central Asian members of the Collective Defence Treaty, minus Tajikistan, in Alma-Ata on 4 November 1992. Here it was decided that the 201st division should remain in Tajikistan and pursue peace-keeping operations until it could be replaced by a CIS force proper, that a State Council consisting of Tajikistan’s different factions should be formed, that an ‘Alma-Ata Committee’ consisting of representatives of the Presidents of Uzbekistan, Kirgisia, Kazakhstan and Russia to bring about piece should also be formed, and that a corresponding committee consisting of deputy foreign ministers should supervise complementary humanitarian work (Hiro 1995: 219-227). It was decided that battalions from Kazakhstan and Kirgisia as well as a mobile regiment should link up with the 201st division to form the peacekeeping force.
These forces took up their positions only in 1994; before that, Russian and Uzbekistani detachments were alone in making up the force. Following a decision reached by another CIS summit in Minsk in January, it was decided to deploy another four motorised infantry battalions. This decision was never implemented, however (Shashenkov 1994:54). It should be clear, then, that the Russian and the Uzbekistani leaderships as well as the CIS as such found Iskanderov lacking in legitimacy, since he had failed to step down as the result of a no confidence vote in the National Assembly.
But this was merely a symptom, and not the reason why Moscow failed to respond to calls which would have propped up Iskanderov’s government, and ended up supporting the Leninabadis and Kulyabis instead. As it was taken less than a year after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in an atmosphere of deep divisions about Russia’s place in the world, this choice was an important part of the overall debate about the nature of Russian foreign policy (Neumann 1994a).6 Those who argued that Russia should assert itself and give priority to what later came to be known as the ‘near abroad’ could point to a number of reasons why it was better to support Moscow’s traditional partners in Tajikistan, that is, the Leninabadis and Kulyabis. First, the need to take a strong stance against what was perceived as the Islamicism of Iskanderov and his followers.
If Islam were allowed to further encroach on the territory of the Soviet Union, it would have a knock-on effect not only in the rest of Central Asia and in Transcaucasia, but also inside the Russian Federation, in the North Caucasus and the Volga-Ural area (Neumann & Kryukov 1995). This argument was attempted reinforced by pointing out that, lest the thrust from the south be stopped along the mountainous border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the next line that could be easily held militarily would be in Northern Kazakhstan, leaving a lot of ethnic Russians stranded to the south.
Secondly, and also to do with the ethnic Russian minority, it was seen as politically and economically costly if large parts of the 300.000 strong Russian minority in Tajikistan should decamp and descend on Russia in a situation where housing and jobs were already extremely scarce due among other things to the withdrawal of troops from Central Europe.
(In the event, hovever, a large number of there left anyway.) Thirdly, there was the issue of maintaining a reputation for standing by Moscow’s traditional supporters in a time of need. Against this barrage of arguments for lending continued support to the Leninabadis and Kulyabis, the case for supporting Iskanderov rested on him having the support not only of Islamic, but also of democratic forces, and on a general orientation towards Russian non-interference in the affairs of other former Soviet republics in order not to strain resources and lose out on the goodwill of ‘the West’. These considerations were brushed aside.
Thus, Moscow’s decision to support the Leninabadis and the Kulyabis was also an important nail in the coffin of the romantic Westernising interlude in Russian foreign policy. In search of legitimacy: from the interior to the border The importance of the Tajikistan involvement received a further impetus during the summer of 1993. The civil war had reached a less intensive phase, with the opposition save for sniping activity withdrawing to the intractable interior of Gorno-Badakhshan and other regional strongholds. The question arose as to the necessity of perpetuating the CIS peacekeeping campaign.
At this crucial period, on 13 July 1993, a border troop post manned by 47 Russian soldiers was overrun. 24 guards were killed and another 18 wounded. About 200 villagers and some 60 attackers were also killed. This has been seen as a decisive moment for the further military involvement of Russia in Tajikistan (Sherr 1993).