The Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, near the town of Khorog. Image by Joshua Kucera. Tajikistan, 2013.

Khorog, Tajikistan— Along the narrow valley of the Gunt River, the town of Khorog, Tajikistan, is strung several miles long and only about a mile wide, the bluffs rising sharply on each side. The steep mountains look like a fortress, defending the town from the outside. Via a network of aqueducts, springs from the mountains are corralled and piped throughout the city, providing clean drinking water.

But last summer, the mountains proved the town's enemy. In a military operation ostensibly aimed at capturing four informal leaders/warlords/mafia bosses (depending on your perspective), Tajikistan's special forces placed snipers halfway up the mountains, sneaking them up in the middle of the night. When the operation began early in the morning, those snipers targeted not only the homes of the “commanders,” as they're most commonly called here, but also ordinary civilians. As one resident told me: “After that I understood: this wasn't between those leaders and the government, but between the government and the people.”

What brought Tajikistan's military to Khorog is a complex story. The trigger was the murder of a local security official, and the central government's stated desire to bring his killers to justice. But nearly everyone, both in the capital Dushanbe and here in Khorog, believes that the goal was broader: to rein in the local commanders who, in Dushanbe's view, had become a little too autonomous.

After a brutal civil was in the 1990s, Tajikistan's government reached an agreement with the rebels giving the latter government positions in exchange for them laying down arms. Those rebel leaders operated without much contact with Dushanbe, and ran their territories like small fiefdoms. Over the past several years, as it's gained strength, the central government has managed to neutralize most of those ex-rebel regions, and Khorog was to be the last step in the process.

But the attempt backfired. The heavy-handedness of the government's approach communicated to the people of Khorog that the government was against them, not just the commanders. People in this part of Tajikistan have important cultural differences with the rest of the country: they speak a different language, and are Shia Ismailis rather than Sunni Muslims. Citizens reported government soldiers using ethnic slurs against them during the fighting—likely just isolated cases, but ones which have gotten amplified by social media in the months since.

Visiting Khorog nearly a year after those events, it's striking the unanimity with which people speak about how they support the “commanders” and oppose the government. The only people who support the government, I was told, are those who work for them. People told me of awkward rifts in families where one member works for the government and no one else does.

Most accounts of last summer's Khorog events, even those critical of the government, have tended to emphasize that the “commanders” are criminals who are barely more tolerated than the government. And while many people did express reservations about criminal activities that the commanders engage in, including drug smuggling, they still said that the commanders stood up for Khorog and are the town's best hope for self-protection. Many had stories of neighbors or cousins who were not part of the commanders' organizations, but who nevertheless took up arms when the government attacked.

One element of the government's narrative about the events is especially objectionable to people in Khorog: the notion that it was connected to Afghanistan. The government has repeatedly alluded to Afghan ties of the commanders, implying that the Khorog operation was a battle in the war on terror.

But Khorog residents say that the notion that they are in league with terrorists from Afghanistan is absurd. For one, they are Shia Ismailis, seen by Sunnis like the Taliban as heretics. In addition, despite their isolation, they tend to be more cosmopolitan than other Tajikistanis. Pamiris are well known in Tajikistan for their command of English and relatively modern outlook. This has endeared them to expatriates in Tajikistan, and ensured that they get a large share of the lucrative jobs in international agencies (while, in turn, creating some resentment among non-Pamiris).

Now, the main question here is: what next? Nearly everyone expects the government to try some day to finish what it started. Opinion is mixed on what to do about that: While some say they need to lie low and avoid provoking the government, others insist that they need to prepare to be better able to take on the government next time. Fighters loyal to the commanders hint that they have already been collecting weapons, and neighborhood men conduct night patrols around Khorog. They're making sure government soldiers can't come and arrest residents in the middle of the night—and they're also, they say, keeping an eye on the mountains.

Project

Chronically unstable and corrupt — and now bracing for more chaos from Afghanistan — Tajikistan's president is staking his country's future on the biggest dam in the world.

Recently

July 12, 2013 / Wilson Quarterly
Joshua Kucera
Poor, landlocked, and bedeviled by its neighbors, Tajikistan is staking its future on the one resource it has in abundance.
July 1, 2013 / The Atlantic
Joshua Kucera
In a remote region of Tajikistan, the government used U.S.-trained special forces to aggressively pursue local warlords. The operation backfired — the special forces suffered a humiliating defeat.