Fears of Swat Valley spillover in Tajikistan

July 15, 2009 - 0:0

TAVILDARA, Tajikistan (AFP) -- A secretive military operation has raised fears that Islamist fighters fleeing Pakistan and Afghanistan may be slipping into Tajikistan, threatening a fragile peace in the ex-Soviet state.

Since May, Tajik security forces have set up a tight security cordon and engaged in gunbattles with armed groups in an area close to the Afghan border.
Officials call it a counter-narcotics operation, but diplomats and residents at the foot of the soaring Pamir Mountains fear the government have been battling insurgents, possibly fighters linked to the Taliban.
“We know that something has happened, that most probably it involves the people who have been mentioned, and that it is probably a spillover from the Swat Valley operations,” a senior Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Fighting between Taliban militants and the Pakistan army in Pakistan's Swat Valley had already raised concerns that militants with ethnic ties to ex-Soviet Central Asia could seek refuge inside Tajikistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama has sent thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in a bid to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. And that is not necessarily good news for Tajikistan, which went through a civil war after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as militant groups like the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) flourished.
Groups like the IMU -- designated a terrorist organization by Washington -- were pushed into Afghanistan after a 1997 peace deal ended the civil war. But in recent weeks, signs have appeared suggesting that the militants are back.
The nearby town of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, after years of relative stability following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, has seen a surge of violence believed to be Taliban fuelled.
And the Tajik government said on Saturday that it detained five ethnic Chechen Russians who were selling drugs to fund militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- a rare admission of the presence of foreign fighters.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity during a recent visit to Central Asia, told AFP that Washington was closely monitoring the outflow of militants since the beginning of the Swat operations.
“I think we are seeing, looking globally, that Al-Qaeda is relocating its forces into the rest of the world,” he said.
Tajikistan, the poorest of the ex-Soviet republics, shares a long and mostly unguarded border with Afghanistan, making its rugged mountains a logical gateway into Central Asia and beyond.
During a recent visit to the Rasht Valley, long a stronghold of Tajikistan's Islamist opposition, government checkpoints maintained a chokehold over long stretches of punishing mountain roads leading into the area.
In the regional capital, Garm, local Islamist fighters loyal to Tajik warlord Mirzokhoja Akhmadov waited outside a hotel, staring ominously from their Russian-made four wheel drive van.
Before bundling into the vehicle for the drive to Akhmadov's compound, one of his lieutenants pointed toward the mountains that ended in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
“There is a pass here that they can easily pass through,” said the lieutenant, who asked not to be named because he did not have the permission of his commander.
“It may already be happening,” he added.
Dressed in traditional Islamic robes and with a flowing white beard, his commander, Akhmadov, confirmed there had been several months of heavy fighting.
But he denied that fighters were coming from Afghanistan, saying that the government was battling local Islamists angered by pitiful conditions and state repression.
“We don't need anyone to come in from outside to help us fight,” said Akhmadov, a feared commander from the 1990s civil war.
Many fear that Tajikistan's Islamists could be bolstered by the global financial crisis, if Tajik laborers return frustrated and penniless from mothballed construction sites in Russia and Kazakhstan.
Officials from Tajikistan's Western-funded Drug Control Agency (DCA) said operations in the Rasht Valley were part of an annual anti-drug operation called Poppy-2009.
Tajikistan is a main route for drugs smuggled out of Afghanistan, the world's largest heroin producer.
“This is a routine annual anti-drug operation, and is not connected with anything else in any way,” DCA director General Rustam Nazarov told AFP.
However locals say the government has refused to explain the operations, leading many to forge conclusions based on their own experiences.
In mid-May, a neighbor turned up at the ramshackle home of a village elder in a remote mountain hamlet not far from the garrison town of Tavildara.
The elder, who asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisal, said the neighbor had ferried foreigners -- possibly Chechens -- in his taxi from the capital Dushanbe to an isolated village nearby.
“All they had with them were suitcases filled with bread and sweets,” he related from their conversation.
“And they tried to pay with euros and Russian rubles. They didn't have any local money at all. What can we do with rubles and euros? People here don't even know what the exchange rate is.”