Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains

Analysts consider chances of revival of Islamic insurgency as authorities reject claims that guerrilla bands are roaming the hills.

Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains

Analysts consider chances of revival of Islamic insurgency as authorities reject claims that guerrilla bands are roaming the hills.

Speculation is rife that Islamic militants are once again active in the eastern mountains of Tajikistan.



No one in government will confirm media reports that the military units deployed in force in the region are hunting a warlord from the 1992-97 civil war known as Mullo Abdullo, who has allegedly spent the last few years with Taleban allies in Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan.



The official version is that police are conducting a major sweep to stop the trade in opium and its derivative heroin in the Rasht valley, which cuts through inaccessible mountains and was a stronghold of opposition support throughout the civil war.



According to interior ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev, “The objective of this operation, which will continue until the end of November, is to tackle opium poppy cultivation and combat drug traffickers in the valley, 150 to 200 kilometers east of Dushanbe.”



CLASHES WITH “MUJAHEDIN”



For weeks, there was circumstantial evidence that the authorities were doing more than that – the sheer scale of the operation, reports that three policemen died in a firefight, and separately, the arrests of several former associates of the guerrilla leader now living in other parts of Tajikistan.



IWPR has spoken to a serviceman in an elite interior ministry unit that was among the first to be sent in, around May 21.



Now back in the capital Dushanbe after his unit was rotated out and replaced with fresh troops, he confirmed the government forces were in action against armed men.



Officially, he said, they were indeed part of the Opium-2009 operation, but in fact their task was to patrol mountain tracks paths to intercept militants or as he called them, “mujahedin”.



This man said troops were deployed after the authorities got wind that a group of Islamic militants had infiltrated the area from Afghanistan, with which Tajikistan shares a long and in places porous border.



For about two weeks, his squad was posted on a high-altitude pass still covered by snow even in late May. It was one of several units deployed to encircle a group of about 25 men holed up in the village of Chursoni Bolo not far from the pass.



The stand-off ended without an all-out battle, as the “mujahedin” force broke up into smaller groups and escaped along routes that had been left unsecured.



On June 16, the Asia-Plus news agency reported that one officer and two servicemen with the interior ministry forces had been killed in the Rasht valley. Its source in the defence ministry refused to say anything further about the circumstances.



“They say the militants are still in the district,” said a resident of Tavildara district who visited Dushanbe in early June.



A second IWPR source, this time in the Tajik defence ministry, reported a clash in a different district, further south and much closer to the Afghan frontier.



On May 28, a police patrol ran into a group of eight or nine men near Gundara in the Darvoz district.



They called for back-up, and a helicopter was despatched to circle over the area, but it failed to spot any militants.



“By the time help arrived [on the ground], it was already growing dark and the operational commanders decided not to send in an assault unit,” said the source.



Instead the government troops cordoned off the area. Overnight, they came under fire, after which the militants simply disappeared under cover of darkness.



“In the morning, when police and defence ministry soldiers went to check out the area, the mujahedins’ trail was cold,” said the source.



Government officials continue to deny that the military sweep in the east is anything other than a counter-trafficking operation.



“As far as Abdullo Rahimov is concerned, I can say that if he appears anywhere in the republic, steps will be taken to arrest him as he has been on the wanted list since the early years of this century,” deputy interior minister Farhodbek Shodmonbekov told IWPR on June 18. “We are not in possession of any information suggesting he is in the Rasht valley, nor are we aware of the presence of a group of militants there.”



Shodmonbekov conceded that those involved in the Opium-2009 operation had a wider remit than just drugs. “All across the country, including the districts in Rasht [valley], search operations are going on to pursue criminals, solve crimes committed in past years, and locate and confiscate firearms,” he said.



Many in Tajikistan were surprised at statements from officials like Asadulloev that the poppies that produce opium were growing in the Rasht valley.



“The local climate doesn’t allow opium poppy to be cultivated there,” said Abdughani Mamadazimov, head of the National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan.



Mirzokhujo Ahmadov, once a UTO commander and still highly influential in Rasht, said, “People here don’t grow poppies. This campaign has been going on for the past several weeks. I haven’t heard of any poppies being found, but we are aware that a thorough passport [identity paper] check is being carried out among the population at large, but specifically those whose outward appearance is Islamic, those who wear beards.”



Meanwhile, in other parts of Tajikistan, police have rounded up a handful of Mullo Abdullo’s associates from the old days – Muzaffar Nuriddinov was arrested on May 18, Jumaboy Sanginov on May 31 and Turobsho Solehov on June 16. They are accused of crimes dating back a number of years.



GHOSTS OF CIVIL WAR



Mullo Abdullo dates from the conflict of the early Nineties which at one level, pitted Islamists and democrats against the Communists-turned-nationalists who seized control of government.



The conflict also had a regional dimension, as most support for the United Tajik Opposition was based mainly in the mountain valleys east of Dushanbe. On the regime side, Soviet-era rulers who hailed from the economically developed north of the country were shoved aside by a faction from around Kulob (or Kulyab), a poor region in the far south; this grouping is still prevalent in government.



As part of the 1997 deal which brought the war to a close, the UTO’s driving force, the Islamic Rebirth Party, became a legal organisation which continues to hold a couple of seats in parliament.



UTO guerrillas were disarmed and offered jobs, often in the military.



A few dissident UTO commanders refused to play ball, and the majority like the memorably-named Hitler Rahmon were picked off in military operations over the next few years.



Relatively few are believed to have relocated to Afghanistan, although another important element of the UTO forces consisting of men from Uzbekistan’s Fergana valley went on to form the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which allied itself with the Taleban, mounted major raids into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1990 and 2000, and then shifted to Waziristan, the Taleban stronghold in northwest Pakistan.



Mullo Abdullo, whose real name is Abdullo Rahimov, left Tajikistan some time later, in the Nineties, and according to some reports, he has most recently been in Pakistan.



The interior ministry soldier who spoke to IWPR said Mullo Abdullo had come back in March or April via Afghanistan, together with a number of men.



Furthermore, he said they were then joined by local men in Tavildara who had been with the UTO in the Nineties and remained hostile to the government in Dushanbe.



“There are a few guys from the same area who – following the [post-peace] reintegration process – served in a battalion of the Ministry for Emergency Situations that was quartered in Tavildara district,” said the policeman.



The emergencies ministry is a disaster relief agency which has military-style units at its disposal, and soaked up some of the demobilised guerrillas.



EARLY SIGNS OF WIDER INSURGENCY?



Analysts in Tajikistan are now trying to figure out whether the armed men who have been sighted really are grouped around Mullo Abdullo, and if so, what they are up to in the Rasht valley.



Political expert Parviz Mullojonov explains how hard it is to establish facts out of the various reports and rumours.



“The only things the majority of sources agree on are first, that a group led by Mullo Abdullo has appeared in the region from neighbouring Afghanistan,” he told IWPR. “Secondly, that the government’s opium operation is in some way connected with the appearance of this group of militants.”



One possibility, Mullojonov believes, is that Central Asian militants allied with the Taleban are finding life increasingly uncomfortable in Pakistan. The Taleban in Waziristan, where the IMU is also present, are under pressure from the Pakistani military and United States drone aircraft attacks.



“It is more than likely that under these circumstances, a number of groups will be forced to return to Central Asia and become more active in the region – even they are not ready for large-scale operations,” said Mullojonov.



He added that most of the militants now in Pakistan were Uzbeks, and “there were relatively few Tajiks among them”.



On June 16, Reuters news agency quoted unconfirmed reports from the Pakistani military that IMU leader Tohir Yoldash, an Uzbek, had been injured in a bombing raid in South Waziristan.



Mullojonov also suggested there might be some connection with recent attacks in and around Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan, which the Uzbek authorities have blamed on Islamic extremists.



Overnight on May 25-26, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, a town near Andijan, came under attack. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire, and all the assailants got away, said a statement from the Uzbek prosecutor’s office. Later on May 26, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself.



Mullojanov pointed out that it was quite possible to move from the eastern Tajik mountains down to the Fergana valley.



A Tajik police official who asked not to be identified believes further outbreaks of violence might be in the offing.



“The fact that the Tavildara group is not making any demands could indicate that this is a diversionary tactic,” he said. “A bigger operation may be being planned for other locations.”



Reports from Kyrgyzstan suggest the authorities there are taking such fears seriously.



The Fergana.ru news agency reported that troops from two elite units of the Kyrgyz interior ministry were deployed in the Batken district on June 20. Batken is a strip of land in the far southwest of Kyrgyzstan, sandwiched between Tajik and Uzbek territory, and was the scene of IMU incursions in past years.



Jakypbek Azizov, who heads the ministry’s public security department, told a press conference that the forces had been sent in because of a “complex situation in border areas”, which was a consequence of developments in Afghanistan and the possibility that militants had infiltrated neighbouring states. It was unclear whether he was referring to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.



Irina Melnikova is the pseudonym of a journalist in Dushanbe.

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