Politics dies in the Pamirs

by Faisal Devji


In the early morning of July 24th, without any warning, government troops were sent into Tajikistan’s eastern province of Gorno-Badakhshan, apparently to deal with an armed group involved in the smuggling of narcotics, tobacco and even women to and from neighbouring Afghanistan. The immediate provocation for this large-scale mobilization was meant to be the killing of a security official by one of his subordinates, with both men alleged to be part of the murky dealings attributed to those who are posted on the Tajik-Afghan border. But the military incursion into the provincial capital of Khorog was not commensurate with this narrative, including as it did helicopter gunships, armoured vehicles, snipers and checkpoints posted across the town, effectively bringing life there to a halt. The province’s road and communications links were also cut, thus isolating its entire population of some 250,000 in the series of interconnected valleys that make up this mountainous region.

Instead of cowing the people of Khorog, however, this deployment appears to have decided them upon resistance, and in the ensuing violence anywhere between 40 and 200 civilians as well as soldiers are said to have been killed. Taken aback by the tenacity of the opposition, the government is now engaged in negotiations with local notables and “civil society”, though the violence apparently continues in a sporadic fashion. Insofar as it has picked up this story from a place invariably described as “remote”, mainstream media in the West has only repeated some version of the Tajik government’s line, about rooting out corruption and militancy on its border with Afghanistan. But the reality behind this easy stereotype is much more interesting. Indeed I will argue here that far from being yet another example of the difficult post-Soviet transition to democracy, this story is about the failure as much as the future of “global civil society”.

Gorno-Badakhshan has been an autonomous province since Soviet times, and is home to a Shia Muslim sub-sect that forms the country’s most significant religious minority. It was also one of the two regions of Tajikistan that supported the United Tajik Opposition, which stood against other regional elites who took power during the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s. Although much of the commentary on last month’s events has been dominated by rumours of Islamic militancy among the rebels, Gorno-Badakhshan’s community of Ismailis, as they are now known, is a group that keeps no mosques and practises few of the Islamic rituals common among their Sunni compatriots. Indeed the civil war relied more upon ethnic than religious distinctions, with the Ismailis’ faith defined almost entirely by their ethnic identity as Pamiris, those who inhabit the valleys of the Pamir mountain range.

After taking more than 10,000 lives, the civil war finally drew to a close in 1997, with an agreement brokered by outside parties, including Russia, the US and the UN, but the recent violence in Gorno-Badakhshan suggests that it has never in fact ended. For what the government has done is to breach the peace agreement by violating the province’s autonomy and attempting to exert direct control over it. Of course any state would want to take complete possession of its national territory, especially if this happens to be an expansive border region occupied by a minority population. How, then, is it possible to reach a satisfactory agreement in this context, and why did the one that stopped the civil war in 1997 come apart in the meantime? This is where the story departs the familiar script of post-Soviet transition and becomes intriguingly global in character.


Cargo cult

One of the outside parties crucial in arranging for the agreement that paused, if it did not quite end the civil war in Gorno-Badakhshan, was a faith-based NGO headed from a suburb of Paris by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world’s Ismailis. Cut off from his Pamiri followers during the 70 years of Soviet rule, the Aga Khan and his organization stepped to the fore in the 1990s, and, probably with both Russian and American support, made a ceasefire possible in the region without the direct intervention of any foreign government or international body like the UN. It was an extraordinary and even unprecedented achievement for a non-state actor, based abroad, to seal an agreement ending years of brutal violence. And though it was not publicized, probably in order to protect the Aga Khan from unwelcome questions and suspicion from rival Muslim groups, I can think of no other event that so clearly represents the claims of a so-called “global civil society” to address issues as intractable as a civil war.   

In addition to reclaiming the allegiance of his Central Asian followers, many of whom didn’t even know their Imam’s name, the Aga Khan was able to deploy his NGO, which had already been active among a related population of Ismailis in the mountains of northern Pakistan for a couple of decades, to provide the Pamiris with much-needed food supplies, medical help and eventually educational, economic and other forms of development assistance. The consequences were practically miraculous, with thousands saved from certain starvation and death by the many specialized organizations that are all part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Relying upon a community of wealthy Ismailis with origins in the Indian subcontinent, but now also scattered in Britain, Canada and the US, the Aga Khan was able to mobilize finances, expertise and manpower for his Pamiri following, to say nothing about the support of Western governments and development agencies, given his exemplary record as a social entrepreneur and pro-Western Muslim leader.  

So much for the bright side of “global civil society”, whose darker aspect I will now show is entailed in its very virtues. The agreement ending the civil war involved the Aga Khan asking his followers to disarm, in return for which their military commanders would be absorbed into the Tajik armed forces, as were both the officer killed last month and his alleged murderer. The AKDN would then set up relief and development projects not only in Gorno-Badakhshan but the rest of the country as well, and in addition raise funds and support for Tajikistan internationally. This plan worked well for a few years, but once the government’s rule had become more stable, and especially after 9/11, when its support in providing military bases and medical facilities was needed in the War on Terror, the AKDN was suddenly no longer indispensable. Of course this should have been evident from the beginning, since only a very weak or a very strong state would put up with such a situation, and Tajikistan is neither one nor the other.

Once the opposition had been persuaded to disarm, what hold did the AKDN have over the government to make it honour its promises? Apart from the local support that the rebel fighters had also enjoyed, it had nothing but some degree of influence abroad and what at the time of the agreement appeared to be a great deal of money. Like any NGO, in other words, the AKDN could only enforce the state’s compliance by threatening to publicize its misdeeds, something that is highly unlikely in the circumstances, or to pay its way out of any difficulties. For as an international organization dependent on outside donors, and therefore not accountable to the people it serves in any representative fashion, the AKDN, unlike the opposition fighters of the past, is unable to act with popular backing. It cannot act politically and is forced to rely almost entirely upon the power of money and influence, which is to say on the secretive dealings of brokerage that, however useful, are anti-democratic in nature.

After 2001, therefore, Pamiris started noticing that the state was beginning to assert its control over their province, especially through the secret service that had once been part of the KGB. They also noticed, more worryingly, how President Rakhmon was no longer as deferential to the Aga Khan as he once had been, even referring to him disparagingly to the Imam’s own followers in Gorno-Badakhshan. For Tajikistan is now full of Chinese goods and Indian funds, with the Russians and Americans bidding for military bases and influence, while a stream of money rolls in from the illicit trade in opium and tobacco. Gorno-Badakhshan is also rich in yet untapped mineral resources, which suggests that it might eventually become a battleground for corporate and political forces of all kinds to control. In the meantime a large proportion of the country’s young men, who would have been unemployed at home, are working in illegal and often hazardous conditions in cities like Moscow, their remittances now accounting for more of Gorno-Badakhshan’s income than the AKDN.


Delusions of development

And yet the AKDN is everywhere in the province, and possibly even its largest employer, creating the illusion of prosperity and the reality of increasing class hierarchies by its racially differentiated salaries in US dollars. For “locals” are paid in accordance with a “local economy” that has been so distorted by the NGO as not in fact to exist. Khorog’s highly-paid Ismali and other expatriates, after all, are keeping this fake economy alive by paying rent for houses and retaining the services of local drivers, cooks, secretaries and the like. The consequence is an utterly illusory world sustained entirely from without, but sucking in the best Pamiri minds and talent. Despite all the imaginative projects launched, like building a university of international stature, the general economic situation is completely unsustainable, though it does, of course, keep many Pamiri men and women employed, and offers a number of others remarkable opportunities to work or study abroad.

In effect, Khorog has become a smaller version of post-conflict cities like Sarajevo or Ramallah, that are made into models of cosmopolitan life by infusions of cash from abroad. But this money ends up transforming many local people into the dependents of global networks, while leaving others stranded in a completely shadow “local” economy. And as in Ramallah or Sarajevo, what this does is simply to defer violence and poverty for all but a few. The very benefits brought by “global civil society”, then, turn into problems. Nowhere is this more so than in political life, where the wealth and unelected power of an NGO like the AKDN allows it to subvert an admittedly corrupt political system, but at the same time to destroy the collective will and action of ordinary people. For when an autocratic state deals with an unaccountable organization, both speaking in the name of such people without ever consulting them, democracy must be the first casualty. 

The violence unleashed upon Khorog in July demonstrates how fragile and, in fact, unreal the NGO vision is, for the only thing that has given the government pause and forced it to negotiate are the old resistance fighters supported by ordinary people. Among the hasty and surreptitious communications I have been receiving from a Khorog under siege is an account of its first couple of days that speaks about the re-emergence of a truly political will and practice among the townspeople. Initially fearful and overawed by the APCs, troops, circling helicopters and snipers, these civilians were suddenly inspired by news that one of the armoured vehicles had been attacked and destroyed. What they did next was organize local councils to decide on a course of action, felled poplar trees lining the main street to prevent military vehicles from moving freely along it, and demonstrated in front of government buildings. Pamiris living abroad as students, interns or migrants have also been instrumental in attempting to publicize the military incursion by demonstrating in cities like Moscow and New York while circulating demands for a cessation of hostilities.

These democratic and collective actions would not have been possible within the framework of an NGO like the AKDN, which, relying as it does on secretive deal-making, has remained conspicuously silent about conditions in Gorno-Badakhshan. They illustrate that the only way of reaching a genuine agreement with the government is by participating in the political process and relying upon one’s own strength. For by organizing themselves people possess a collective power that no NGO does, depending as these do on money and influence alone. This is why the state might prefer to deal with the AKDN, which helps to pacify Pamiris both by disarming and speaking for them, without any threat more powerful than money in its arsenal. And so the latest news I have from Khorog is this: the security officer wanted for his superior’s murder has surrendered his arms, supposedly at the Aga Khan’s behest; and the government is negotiating with a body of doubtlessly sincere and concerned Pamiris, as well as some of the AKDN organizations, but nobody from the local councils I have described. Will we see a repetition of the initial civil war agreement? And will this new agreement have any more force behind it than the old?

All its good works and intentions apart, the AKDN very likely adds to the troubles of Gorno-Badakhshan’s residents by continuing to speak for them long after the civil war formally ended, with the Aga Khan’s representative in Tajikistan, invariably an Ismaili of Indo-Pakistani origin, serving as the paymaster of a vast network of clients, which is how power is bought and sold in the NGO sector. Indeed it is sometimes difficult to see what the real difference is between this exercise of power and the autocratic state’s reliance on very similar kinds of clients. Moreover there are now rumours emerging from Afghanistan, retailed by two members of parliament with constituencies abutting Gorno-Badakhshan, that its own Ismailis, along with those of Tajikistan and northern Pakistan, are plotting with support from the West to set up their own state in these roughly contiguous areas. This dangerous myth, which is meant to inspire sectarian hatred among their neighbours, has been doing the rounds in a Pakistan wracked by sectarian strife for years now, which is only natural given the fact that Pakistan was itself created in this way, by carving out Muslim territories from India. But surely its dissemination across Central Asia is an inadvertent by-product of the AKDN’s “global” character and presence in all three countries.

The local politics that “global civil society” dislikes and distrusts so much is the only thing that is capable of setting and keeping a people free. Whatever the result of the current negotiations, it would be an act of the greatest folly for the people of Gorno-Badakhshan to return to the bubble of an NGO-led society. The AKDN has played an important and positive role in the region, but perpetuating itself there by the constant reproduction of expatriate life, as it has done for well over a decade now, is only a way of risking the diminution of its own legacy. After all its expatriates, including the foreign Ismailis there to “serve” their Pamiri “brothers and sisters”, are the first to leave at any sign of trouble, as they did last month, and not for the first time, by way of a “special corridor”. Yet the continued presence of British, Canadian or American citizens in Khorog at such times might well do much to deter the Tajik state. And in the meantime there are unconfirmed reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has offered to support the Pamiri resistance, thus indicating that the exit of one kind of international actor opens the door for the entry of another.

Of course Pamiris are unlikely to accept the questionable and dangerous support of an Islamist party. But do they realize that the AKDN plays, in its own way, a similar destabilizing role in Gorno-Badkhshan’s local politics? Neither “global civil society”, nor the “frontierless brotherhood” of Ismailism that mimics it, can be allowed to define or rather stifle this local politics. The AKDN should be made fully Tajik in character, and give way to elected representatives of the people in any negotiations with the state. As I write, government forces are murdering ex-opposition commanders (including a paraplegic) and civilian demonstrators one by one to avoid any outcry. Rumours are swirling around the capital, Dushanbe, that Pamiris there will be subjected to the kind of large-scale torture and killing they had experienced during the civil war. Not so long ago a lavish Ismaili Centre had been opened amid much fanfare in the same city, by an Ismaili leadership that was clearly oblivious to the continuing threat that faced their people. They had been fooled by their own propaganda about “global civil society” and were unable to recognize that it must collapse like a pack of cards without real political backing. Will the current crisis afford an opportunity for a newly democratic politics to emerge from the local councils set up during it, or is Gorno-Badakhshan to remain the victim of “global civil society” forever?         


About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.


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