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Tajikistan Offers Afghanistan A Model In Peacemaking

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) and opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri (right) sign an agreement on national reconciliation in Moscow in December 1996.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) and opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri (right) sign an agreement on national reconciliation in Moscow in December 1996.

Olim Odilov is making a business plan, hoping to get a loan from his local bank so he can open a small business. Nothing unusual, except that he lives in Rasht, eastern Tajikistan.

Today, it is peaceful here. But a little over 10 years ago, the region was a stronghold of Islamist opposition fighters battling government forces. Odilov was one of those fighters.

"Those were times no one could think straight anymore, no one had a clear idea what was going on, " Odilov says. "Government forces entered our region and we got a weapon to defend our homes and families."

Tajikistan's civil war, which raged from 1992 until the summer of 1997, left at least 50,000 people dead, devastating the country's economy and displacing more than 1.2 million of Tajikistan's 7 million people.

Ending the bloody conflict took three years of international mediation, involving the United Nations and regional states. Ultimately, it needed a leap of faith by government representatives and fighters of the United Tajik Opposition.

Over a decade on, although Tajikistan is still far from being a prosperous, democratic society, its success at ending a civil war and forging reconciliation has led some to suggest that the Tajik experience could be applied as a model in neighboring Afghanistan.

The comparison is more than superficial. The two neighbors share a common language, religion, and culture, and the same challenging topography. The United Tajik Opposition -- a motley coalition of Islamist fighters, warlords as well as democrats -- bears some similarity to the Taliban-led insurgency currently raging in Afghanistan.

At first, the two sides in the conflict, the Moscow-backed secular government and the United Tajik Opposition, supported to some extent by Iran, showed no sign of compromise, vowing to fight until the end. But the ongoing war, with its human casualties, devastation, and growing waves of refugees, took its toll on both sides as well as on neighboring countries.

Concessions And Trust

Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan, and even war-torn Afghanistan, as well as the United Nations, exercised lengthy diplomacy to bring President Emomali Rahmon and opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri to the negotiation table.

Moscow, Tehran, Islamabad, Ashgabat, and the Afghan city of Taloqan hosted numerous rounds of Tajik peace talks.

Muhiddin Kabiri, current leader of Tajikistan's Islamic Revival Party and formerly affiliated with the rebels, tells RFE/RL that what broke the ice and led to peace were the face-to-face meetings between Rahmon and Nuri.

"Delegations can hold 10 or 100 meetings, but it was the two leaders' personal involvement that led to the power-sharing agreement that ended the war," Kabiri says.

Kabiri was a member of the national reconciliation committee, the body in charge of implementing the peace deal. He says the rebels accepted major compromises.

"For the sake of the peace we gave up our main principle. We accepted the secular system of government instead of an Islamic system, and we accepted Emomali Rahmon as the head of the government," Kabiri says.

For its part, the government agreed to hand over 30 percent of political appointments in government ministries, local administration, the police, and other security bodies to opposition representatives even though not all candidates were qualified for the job.

In return, the opposition agreed to disarm its 7,000 fighters over a three-year period and return them to civilian life.

No Moderate/Hard-Core Taliban

"In Afghanistan the possible peace process might take much longer since their country has been at war for three decades," Kabiri says. "However, peace is still possible there, as long as all parties start negotiations without any preconditions, bearing only peace in mind."

Can former Taliban fighters in Afghanistan be convinced to lay down their arms?
Kabiri believes the Afghan government and the international community cannot and should not divide the Taliban into "moderate" and "hard-core" elements. "When you try to make peace with half of a group, the other half will continue to fight," he says.

Pakistan's key role in Afghanistan is often noted. But Ibrohim Usmonov, a former Tajik legislator who took part in his country's peace negotiations representing the government, says all regional powers, "including Russia and Iran," should be involved in the peace process.

"Russia and Iran are in position to have influence over different factions in the Afghan conflict. Whether their influence benefits or harms the potential Afghan peace talks depends on their inclusion or exclusion from such talks," Usmonov says. "If they are included in the peace process, they will try to play a positive role."

Trust was the most delicate and the most important issue for both sides as well as the peace brokers in Tajikistan. Opposition leaders had everything including their very existence at stake when they ordered thousands of their supporters to surrender their weapons to government forces.

But they took the risk.

No Regrets

Some former Islamic fighters -- along with their commanders -- decided to join the national army. Some refused to lay down their weapons and defected to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.

Most fighters wanted to return to normal life to resume their former occupations or try new jobs in their villages. Special rehabilitation centers were set up where former militants could get medical treatment as well as counseling by professionals.

Odilov, the former rebel, went to work for the local police department in Rasht, where he spent 10 years before taking early retirement last year and deciding to go into business.

Financial assistance from donor countries began to pour in after the president and the opposition leader appeared side by side at international donors conferences asking for help to rebuild the country.

Most financial assistance was provided by the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union as well as the neighboring countries who took part in the peace process.

In May 2002, the United Nations officially announced that the peace-and-reconciliation process in Tajikistan was complete. The road has not always been smooth. Over the years, there have been broken promises and disappointments for both sides.

Rahmon and his People's Democratic Party went on to win one election after another, rigging votes and sidelining opposition parties. The Islamic Revival Party has won only 2 of 63 parliament seats in the last parliamentary elections. Rahmon still remains in power. Meanwhile, a number of former warlords from both sides have recently been imprisoned, or died in circumstances some consider suspicious.

Yet, looking back after so many years, Kabiri says he has no regrets. "There are many problems, but they all are peacetime problems now," he says. "The war and bloodshed are over and that is what matters most."
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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