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Tajikistan: Warlords -- A Country's Scourge

By Iskandar Aliev

Dushanbe, 7 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- One of the ugliest developments of the civil war in Tajikistan is the emergence of scores of heavily armed warlords who obey no law except that of their own interest.

They may rule only a scraggy village and a few hillsides, or they may be master of most of a province. What they have in common is their ability to make impossible centralized government and constitutional order.

President Emomali Rakhmonov in some ways resembles a head of state without a country in that even a short car ride from the center of the capital Dushanbe takes a traveller into areas controlled by one or other of these powerful and dangerous figures.

To enter their territory without prior arrangment is to risk at best property and at worst life and limb. These men may have links either with the government or the opposition, or they may be criminals with a hand in the drugs trade, in kidnappings and in profiteering of all sorts.

One of the most powerful among the pro-government warlords is Mahmud Khudoyberdiev, who in the Soviet era was reportedly an officier of the 201st army division. He now controls more than half of Khatlon province, and appears able to defy president Rakhmonov at will. One of his most colourful exploits recently was to attack the city of Tursunzode, just west of Dushanbe, and drive out a rival faction led by Qodir Abdulloev.

Khudoyberdiev was serving as the deputy chief of the elite presidential guard when the attack occurred. Rakhmonov ordered the warlord out of Tursunzode immediately, but Khudoyberdiev ignored that order until he was in control of the city and its big aluminium factory. When he pulled out he took care to leave an armed contingent to retain control of the area for him.

An RFE/RL correspondent says the aim of Khudoyberdiev's attack was most probably to bring under his influence the major aluminium plant, which is a lucrative source of income.

Since the January assault on Tursunzode, Khudoyberdiev has been named as one of the government's experts at the peace talks in Moscow with the Tajik opposition. However, he has not yet attended any of the sessions.

Khudoyberdiev's activities illustrate the strange realities of Tajik politics today. He steps in and out of the official framework of public life apparently at will: while a leader of the president's own guards, he goes off to use his men for a private military campaign to enhance his own influence.

A similar duality of roles is evident in the career of Yaqub Salimov, a key figure who could be called the lord of the pro-government warlords. A former interior minister, Salimov rose to control much of the government military machine following the assassination of two other military leaders, Sangak Safarov and Faizali Saidov.

By mid 1995 Salimov had managed the transition from the world of raw military power to the smoother path of diplomacy by becoming Tajikistan's ambassador to Turkey. But he still spends much time in Dushanbe to maintain his influence.

Illustrating the intermeshing of the various strands of power in Dushanbe is the fact that Salimov's close friend and ally is general Ghaffor Mirzoev, the head of Rakhmonov's presidential guard. However, Mirzoev has been profiting from Salimov's absences in Ankara to increase his own influence.

Two brutal warlords are the brothers Rizvon and Bahrom Sodirov. They were previously aligned with the Islamic opposition, and Rizvon was at one time commander in chief of the opposition forces. They changed loyalties after Rizvon was expelled for brutally executing some of his own commanders and for torturing civilians.

The Sodirovs were most recently in the news through Bahrom's kidnapping last month of 16 people, including military observers and Russian journalists. The hostages were eventually released in exchange for the transportation from Afghanistan by helicopter of a contingent of his fighters. Now Bahrom's group is an outcast from both sides.

On the opposition side, the Islamists appear to have been able to impose better discipline on those local leaders and gunmen who would gladly set themselves up as warlords. The opposition, which controls the mountainous eastern part of the country, has been mindful of the great unpopularity of the government forces, which often acted like occupiers in the hill villages and towns. They have tried to avoid the same unpopularity.

The Sodirovs and the other powerful warlords are seen as wanting to retain continuing power and influence even in the event of a full peace settlement between the government and Islamic opposition.

As their name implies, war has served the warlords well. A stable peace would curb their prerogatives and probably deprive them of much of their income.

The government and Islamic opposition are aware of this, and at their present round of peace talks they have been discussing military integration measures, a subject which includes taming armed bands.

Unless the warlords can be properly integrated into constitutional civilian and military structures, there will be no real peace in Tajikistan.