Prague, 20 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Armed forces loyal to Colonel Mahmud Khudaberdiyev were finally defeated by troops of the Tajik armed forces this week. Khudaberdiyev was portrayed as a rebel and a warlord, and some of Khudaberdiyev's soldiers who surrendered to government troops said they had been misled by the colonel.
But the Khudaberdiyev episode, which began on August 9, is not likely to remain an isolated incident. It's more probable that in the coming months Tajikistan will have to endure a series of such power-plays.
Mahmud Khudaberdiyev received his military training in the Soviet Red Army and served in Afghanistan. He was wounded and decorated there. When Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan Khudaberdiyev returned to his native Tajikistan. His skills as a military man were soon needed again.
During the Tajik civil war, which broke out in mid-1992, Khudaberdiyev became a field commander in a Popular Front unit. The Popular Front were para-military formations, armed by the then President Rahmon Nabiyev and his circle. Loyalties were uncertain at the start of the civil war and even the Tajik army, such as it was, could not be depended upon to fight off various regional and political groups which were basically fighting against the former elite of Tajikistan's Communist Party.
Once back in power the former communists (or "neo-communists" as the press often calls them) still required the services of people such as Khudaberdiyev. The open civil war ended in late 1992 but a guerrilla campaign was soon launched by groups forced from the country or into hiding. Some Popular Front units and their field commanders were incorporated into the Tajik regular army. Many, such as Khudaberdiyev's, were allowed to remain in the areas they had defended against the "rebels" during 1992, usually their home regions. Khudaberdiyev's Popular Front unit became the Tajik Army's First Brigade.
The unit and its commander did not make much news until the summer of 1995. Still loyal to the government, the First Brigade assumed control of law enforcement in their base area, Kurgan-Teppe, but rumors also claimed the region's economy was under the brigade's control. In that summer Khudaberdiyev's domination of the region was challenged by a rival unit of the Tajik army -- the Eleventh Brigade. What began as a campaign of assassinations soon turned into open warfare with artillery and tanks. The Tajik government and the United Nations observer mission mediated the dispute but the Eleventh Brigade had been beaten by then. The losers were relocated and Khudaberdiyev and the First Brigade were left unpunished and in charge of the area.
At the start of 1996 another former commander of a Popular Front unit, Ibodullo Baimatov, reappeared after a period of self exile in neighboring Uzbekistan. Baimatov and his supporters first took the town of Tursunzade, 50 kilometers west of the Tajik capital Dushanbe, then marched on the capital itself.
Khudaberdiyev seized the moment and ordered his unit to advance toward the capital. With both Baimatov and Khudaberdiyev's units within 20 km of Dushanbe, by then in a state of panic, the government conceded and several top officials, the Prime Minister among them, were removed from their posts.
Khudaberdiyev ordered his unit back to Kurgan-Teppe and Baimatov brought his forces back to Tursunzade. Baimatov didn't last long in Tursunzade and the town, home to Central Asia's biggest aluminum plant, became the scene of battles between rival criminal groups. One of these groups was in need of weapons and decided, just before the new year, to raid the headquarters of the First Brigade in Kurgan-Teppe located not far south of Tursunzade. Some weapons were taken but in the process one of Khudaberdiyev's officers was killed. Khudaberdiyev used this as the reason to send his unit to Tursunzade. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov ordered Khudaberdiyev to withdraw to his headquarters and sent the presidential guard to enforce the order. Khudaberdiyev ignored the order and his unit chased the criminal groups out of Tursunzade.
The presidential guard was barred from entering the town by the local population who simply sat on the road outside of town and refused to move. By the end of the fiasco Rakhmonov had reportedly ordered Khudaberdiyev to restore order in Tursunzade. The colonel and his unit, who had violated the constitution and a presidential order were named as the rapid reaction force of the presidential guard. Khudaberdiyev was also offered a position in the government in Dushanbe which he declined.
In June the government came to terms with the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), signing a peace agreement and officially ending the Tajik civil war. Just prior to the actual signing Khudaberdiyev's unit conducted military maneuvers. In the course of these maneuvers they took control in areas east of Kurgan-Teppe. The unit's actions were swept under the rug so as not to endanger the peace treaty.
Following that action, in July, Khudaberdiyev announced that a defense council had been formed with other former Popular Front commanders in the Khatlon region. Their most common demand was that no armed fighters from the UTO be allowed back into their area. But the government had already promised the UTO that armed bodyguards could return to protect UTO representatives who would assume government posts.
When fighting erupted in northern Dushanbe on 8 August it soon spread southward toward Khudaberdiyev's region. Who attacked first is unclear but the government used the fighting as reason to order Khudaberdiyev to hand over his unit's weapons. Khudaberdiyev eventually refused and this led to the fighting which ended on August 19. Most of the First Brigade has surrendered to the government with a promise of amnesty for voluntarily turning in weapons. Khudaberdiyev has fled to the mountains and his whereabouts are unknown.
With the civil war over, the government no longer needs the support of allies who occupy their own areas of influence. Tajikistan needs to reunite all its territory and can not permit individuals to live in their own fiefdoms, disregarding government instructions when it does not suit their own ambitions. Mahmud Khudaberdiyev is one of the first of such people the government has dealt with but he will not be the last. There are dozens of local leaders like Khudaberdiyev in Tajikistan, though none so famous as the colonel, and the government will need to act against all of them. What has just happened is the first example in a process which is likely to go on for some months.