Tajikistan on July 24 launched a military operation in the country's eastern Gorno-Badakhshan province against forces loyal to warlord Tolib Ayombekov. The operation is in retaliation for the death of State Committee on National Security regional head Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov on July 21, for which Ayombekov's group is accused. At least nine members of Tajik security forces reportedly have been killed in the operation so far and more than 20 have been wounded.
Gorno-Badakhshan, a remote and mountainous region, was an opposition stronghold during the Tajik civil war in the 1990s and has remained a difficult area for the government of President Emomali Rakhmon to control. The ongoing fighting there has the potential to spread to other areas and destabilize the entire country.
Such a destabilization occurred in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Groups from Gorno-Badakhshan and Garm — which contains the restive Rasht Valley — aligned against the political dominance of the Kulyab and Leninabad regions in the west, resulting in a five-year civil war. While the western regions won the war, facilitating Rakhmon's rise to power, he was only able to keep the country stable by giving opposition figures from Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan positions in the government and security forces.
During his nearly 20 years in power, Rakhmon has phased out many opposition figures from government and security ranks in an attempt to consolidate his grip over the country. Nevertheless, opposition forces have remained and periodically resurfaced, most recently with a high-profile jailbreak in August 2010 in which nearly two dozen opposition figures escaped into the Rasht Valley. While Tajik security forces launched security sweeps in the area and eventually declared the arrest or elimination of all the escaped militants, tensions have run high since then, with opposition forces conducting attacks on security forces, protests and even targeted killings.
Nazarov is now the highest-ranking security official to be killed in Tajikistan since the 2010 jailbreak, and his death has prompted the government to engage Gorno-Badakhshan, cutting off communication with and access to the capital, Khorug, and dispatching Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimov to the region. A Tajik security official has said that the murder was the "last straw" and that Ayombekov and his armed supporters must be "destroyed." The government has also accused Ayombekov of smuggling drugs, tobacco and precious stones into the province and said that the warlord had rejected peace negotiations. Nazarov had allegedly been investigating this smuggling ring and had made a few large seizures before he was killed, indicating that his death could be linked to that investigation.
Stratfor now will be watching for other opposition elements to join Ayombekov and for the fighting to spread to other regions of the country, particularly the Rasht Valley. There have already been reports of other high-profile casualties in Gorno-Badakhshan, including Nafasbek Dilshodov, chief prosecutor of the province's Rushan district, though it is not immediately clear whether this is a result of the military operation. It will also be important to track the reaction and potential involvement of Russia — which has three military bases and 7,000 troops in the country — to the military operation.