Just before dawn on July 24 of last year, the government of Tajikistan began a military operation in the small town of Khorog on the Afghanistan border. According to the government, the attack was targeted at four leaders of criminal groups involved in drug smuggling from Afghanistan, who were suspected of killing a local security official. It was the kind of operation the U.S. - worried about instability on Afghanistan's northern border - has been training and equipping Tajikistan's special forces units to carry out.
But to the people of Khorog, the operation looked very different. The scale of the attack - using helicopters, mortars, and the country's most elite soldiers - was clearly far beyond what was necessary to capture four men. Snipers on the mountains that rise steeply above the town shot at civilians. Phone and internet were cut off. One local civil society leader described huddling with his family in an interior room in his apartment; venturing to a window he saw the bodies of three neighbors - and a soldier's gun pointed at his window. "After that I understood: this wasn't between those leaders and the government, but between the government and the people," he recalled.
The operation backfired: Resistance from the town forced the government into a humiliating retreat after failing to capture any of the four men they had sought. And instead of exerting control, the government has alienated people here, who now nearly unanimously say they mistrust and fear the Dushanbe authorities. Groups of men patrol the streets at night, trying to prevent another surprise attack by the government. Men loyal to the leaders - commonly referred to as "commanders" - say they have gathered weapons in preparation for another war.
This comes at an unpropitious time for Tajikistan. In preparation for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, scheduled to start next year, the U.S., Russia, and other partners have been trying to help Tajikistan's government bolster its shaky hold on the unstable country. Over the last several years, Dushanbe has managed to wrest control over most of Tajikistan from a variety of local warlords who still held sway as a legacy of the civil war that ravaged Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997. Khorog was to be the last step in that consolidation process. But the failure of last summer's operation, and the hardening of resistance among the people of Khorog, has instead reversed that momentum.
I spent two weeks in Khorog talking to a wide range of residents: civil society leaders, intellectuals, fighters, expats, and ordinary people. Almost none of them wanted their name published, fearing retribution from the government. I was unable to talk to government officials -- exposing myself as a journalist (I was visiting on a tourist visa) would have exposed me to police scrutiny and possibly endangered my sources. But the picture that emerged from the town was clear: while news stories still generally refer to the local combatants as "militants," people consider the fight last year to have been a people's uprising in response to an attack on them by the government. And when the government comes back again (something that is widely believed to be inevitable both in Dushanbe and Khorog) the people here say they will form a front more united than before, and fight back harder than before.
Gorno Badakhshan - the region of which Khorog is the capital - is the most mountainous, remote part of an already very mountainous and remote country. Its geography is dominated by the Pamir (from Persian meaning "the roof of the world") Mountains, part of the same mountain system that includes the Himalayas and Hindu Kush. It is sparsely populated: Badakhshan's roughly 250,000 people represent 3 percent of Tajikistan's total population, but the territory occupies almost half of the entire country. The people, known as Pamiris, speak various Iranian languages that are related to, but not mutually comprehensible with, the Tajik spoken in the rest of Tajikistan. And where most of Tajikistan is Sunni Muslim, the Pamiris are Shia Ismailis, part of a worldwide community of 15 million loyal to the London-based Aga Khan.
For most of history, the Pamirs were profoundly isolated, but came under control of the Russian empire in 1895. In 1925, the Soviet Union formally created the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and, mindful of its strategic importance near the sensitive borders with China and Afghanistan, took pains to develop the area and strengthen their hold on it. They built a "highway" and established pharmaceutical and textile factories there.
Soon after independence came in 1991, the country fractured on regional lines and Tajikistan broke out in a civil war. The Pamiris eventually lost, but as part of the peace deal that ended the war the Pamiris' military leaders were given government positions. One, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov, headed the border post with China and another, Tolib Ayombekov, a post on the Afghanistan border.
Since then, the government in Dushanbe has for the most part neglected the Pamirs. The factories closed, and the role of developing the economy was taken up by the Aga Khan Development Network, the aid group funded by the Pamiris' spiritual leaders. Pretty much anything that has been built in Badakhshan in the last 20 years has been the product of AKDN largesse, and the group is the region's largest employer. Politically, the Pamirs were quiet. In a 2008 Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable entitled "The Pamirs - Going Their Own Way, Whether They Want To Or Not," American embassy visitors to Khorog nevertheless found that "all our contacts dismissed regional alienation from Dushanbe as a non-issue." Still, after the government undertook operations to regain control in other parts of the country it was widely assumed that they would try to do the same in Badakhshan.
On July 21 Abdullo Nazarov, a local head of the State Committee for National Security (known by its Russian initials GKNB, the successor agency to the KGB) was killed in a dispute over a shipment of contraband cigarettes that had come through Ayombekov's border post. According to a local source who followed the case, Ayombekov's brother attempted to scare Nazarov by shooting at him, but he accidentally hit and killed him.
This proved to be the pretext the government was looking for. At the time, there were already a large number of soldiers in Badakhshan for a military exercise. Immediately following Nazarov's killing soldiers began to gather in Khorog, along with units from the Ministry of the Interior, GKNB, and National Guard. On July 23, about 100 residents of Khorog held a protest asking the soldiers to leave the town.
At 4 the next morning, residents awoke to the sound of gunfire. During the night, snipers had climbed up and taken positions on the steep mountains that enclose Khorog. While the exact order of events remains murky, what seems to have happened is that government soldiers initially focused their fire on the homes of the "commanders". But they faced unexpectedly strong resistance from fighters loyal to the commanders, and in response began to target civilians as well, which in turn prompted ordinary residents to take up whatever arms they had or could find.