Photo: Baba Steve / flickr
There has been a lot of talk about a ‘New Great Game’ in Central Asia, in which the major powers compete for control of resource rich and logistically important region of Central Asia. This area might have made the most headlines last year when Herman Cain found himself unable to pronounce ‘Uzbekistan’. The layperson may not be aware of where Central Asia is, or why exactly it is important.This region has long been seen as crucial to hegemony in Asia and Russia, China and the United States are all vying for control. Recent violence in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan is a case study of how complex the region is, and a preview of the conflicting loyalties in play: local governments that oppose authoritarian central governments, complex border politics between states, numerous restive autonomous regions and of course, international concerns about implications of conflict. The violence in Tajikistan can provide an illustration of the competing entities in the region, and give insight into what the ‘New Great Game’ might mean for the US.
The eastern Badakhshan region of Tajikistan has a long history of opposition to the central government, and on July 24, tensions flared as a ‘special operation’ took place, killing anywhere from 42-200 people, depending on the source of the information. Locally known as Pamir, this semi-autonomous region of Tajikistan is populated by about 200,000 who campaigned for independence during the Tajik civil war of the 1990s. It is a remote, poor part of the country and a continual base for opposition politics and rebel groups. The shared border with Afghanistan has opened it up to smuggling and drug trafficking. The military operation followed the recent killing of a government official, General Abdullo Nazarov, who was chairman for the Committee for National Security. Nazarov, unlike many security officials, was known for being a prominent opposition figure and was only in the government due to a Peace Agreement, which dictated 30% of government ministers must be named by the opposition.
This is a complicated series of events. To spell it out simplistically, an opposition figure in the government was stabbed to death in a province known to be rebellious. The government then attacked this province in order to reassert control, presumably to show that murders of government officials would not go unanswered. Last night, another opposition leader was killed, leading to public protests today.
Eurasianet reports that a wheelchair-bound commander was murdered on the night of 21 August, setting off protests that government troops are attempting to quell. Two protestors are reported injured thus far. Earlier this month, all males in the restless Gorno-Badakhshan region were called to report to the military for questioning, but the government states it is not related to the recent conflicts and is standard procedure.
The return to violence and protest so soon after the July skirmishes stoke fears that Tajikistan will return to full-scale conflict. The killing of civilians in July, though denied by the government, is a likely factor in the protests today, exacerbating problems between the autonomous region and the government. The region in question is isolated, so it does seem fairly unlikely that violence will spill over to other parts of the country.
From a US perspective, it is worth noting that instability on the Afghan border, especially during the drawdown of the US troops, will undoubtedly make US policy makers nervous. This may or may not have any effect on the conflict or Tajikistan, but as pointed out recently by Casey Michel, people are becoming more aware of Tajikistan and its growing regional importance. Additionally, the border in question is a known drug smuggling route, and some analysts state that recent offensives by the government are a power play to gain control over the lucrative drug trade in the region.
The conflict in Tajikistan is one of many in Central Asia – the borders are often volatile, such as the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are often tense, claims of rising Islamist insurgencies from all the Central Asian states and of course, there’s the NATO drawdown from Afghanistan. As the New Great Game takes shape, all of these conflicts will have to be counterbalanced with regional power plays. Central Asia is likely to be a Gordian knot for US foreign policy.
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