DUSAHNBE -- "My relatives from the Rasht Valley say that the local government is in control only during the day. As soon as night falls, others take power," says a cab driver taking us from Dushanbe to the city airport.
The middle-aged man, who gives only his first name, Nabi, speaks with an audible eastern Tajik accent.
"So you don't believe President Emomali Rahmon's government has control of the situation in Rasht?" we ask.
"The government has never had full of control of Rasht in the past two decades," Nabi says, making sure we are not recording his voice.
It's not easy to verify whether the taxi driver or his relatives are telling the truth. His claim, however, completely contradicts what we heard from Tajik officials about the situation in Rasht Valley, a remote, mountainous region and onetime bastion of Tajikistan's Islamic opposition.Little-Understood Operations
President Emomali Rahmon at a polling station in Dushanbe
For over two months, Tajik government forces have been conducting a military operation in Rasht's Kamarob Gorge against what they call Islamic militants.
Secrecy surrounds all aspects of the operation. Communications lines to the area have been cut since fighting began on September 19 after a bloody ambush on a military convoy. State-run media has for the most part ignored the fighting, while independent news agencies have complained of what they called difficulty in getting any information from Rasht.
Officials appear reluctant to publicly discuss the situation in the valley, apart from saying the situation is stable and the government is in control. While even by the most conservative estimates, at least 65 government troops have been killed in Rasht since mid-September, National Security Committee head Saymumin Yatimov describes the operation in Rasht as a "success" that has been nearly wrapped up.
The lack of more information, however, is uncharacteristic of a country whose government is usually quick to highlight the threat posed by Islamic militants -- domestic and foreign alike. By trumpeting these threats -- some would say even exaggerating them -- Central Asian governments have managed to extract lucrative aid packages and political support from powerful Western governments.
For instance, the authorities were swift in explaining two police raids in the northern Isfara district in October and linking them to "terrorists" affiliated with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). A deadly explosion in the police headquarters of the northern city of Khujand on September 3 was promptly described as the first-ever suicide bombing in the country by IMU followers.
So what makes the operation in Rasht so different that the government is unwilling to allow any information out of the area?Limited Information
Mahmadullo Asadullozoda, chief spokesman of the Interior Ministry, has been almost the only source of official information for journalists about what's been going on in Rasht since the conflict erupted. But it seems there is a limit to what even he can tell us, noting that "The reason communications lines are cut off is that the operation is still going on there in the area to completely wipe out those terrorists and criminal groups."
Jumaboi Sanginov, a member Tajikistan's parliament, says the government is capable of "dealing with any threats in Rasht or elsewhere."
This explanation was echoed by Jumaboi Sanginov, a prominent parliament deputy. "Our government is completely capable of dealing with any threats in Rasht or elsewhere," he said.
According to officials, "terrorist groups" in Rasht include some former opposition commanders, foreign fighters, and IMU followers.
"So far government troops have killed over 20 militants and arrested more than 30 of them," Asadullozoda told us. "Most of them have been to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
One name you hear frequently in connection with the Rasht operation is Abdullo Rahimov -- known as Mullo Abdullo -- a native of Rasht and former opposition commander, who has reportedly joined the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Mullo Abdullo had refused to accept the 1997 peace accord agreed to by the government and the Islamic opposition, which put an end to Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.
Officials maintain it has been Mullo Abdullo -- along with another former commander Alovuddin Davlatov, aka Ali Bedaki -- who stirred up the latest conflict in Rasht. Not everyone is convinced, however.Fighting Ghosts?
Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a former deputy prime minister who once served as the Qozi-Kalon, the highest religious authority in Tajikistan, says that Mullo Abdullo "is being used as a pretext" to launch military operations in Rasht. "People who come from the area say no one has seen Mullo Abdullo there. In fact, Mullo Abdullo has become some kind of ghost, like [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden," Turajonzoda says.
Indeed, in May 2009, another secretive military operation was conducted in Rasht Valley, when a powerful former opposition figure and a native of Rasht named Mirzo Ziyoev was killed in suspicious circumstances. His death was blamed on Mullo Abdullo's supporters.
Mullo Abdullo himself has never made any public statement and has never given a media interview.
Some people on the streets of Dushanbe say they believe Mullo Abdullo's name is being used by government forces to justify their aggressive presence in the valley, where many residents still treat the government with a certain degree of suspicion.
Yet few in Dushanbe believe the militants in Rasht pose any serious threat to Rahmon's rule, at least at this point. "I don't think what’s going on in Rasht is a challenge to the regime per se," says Ken Gross, the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan.
Gross says the conflict is "localized" in the valley, adding that, "It’s not like these are armed fighters whose next step is to move closer to Dushanbe or attack the government elsewhere."
The ambassador says Tajikistan's foreign minister told him things were settling down both in Rasht and in the northern Sughd Province.
"Good, can I go to Gharm?" Gross recalls asking the diplomat in hopes of reaching Rasht's administrative center, located on the edge of area where the military is conducting its current operation. Gross says the foreign minster responded, "You may want to wait awhile."Media Blackout
Beyond Dushanbe and Rasht, especially in Sughd Province, many people have hardly heard about the ongoing military operation in Rasht. Indeed, the government's information blackout seems to be working there.
"I believe the television. I mean its a news program," says Madina, a teacher from the northern Konibodom district. Madina, who gives only her first name, says she remembers news about "innocent soldiers killed by terrorists" somewhere in Rasht. She can't recall any details and has very little knowledge of the ongoing military operation.
We met her in Khujand, where she was shopping in the city's Chinese market. Like many others living in the countryside, Madina says she doesn't have any access to the Internet and can't afford a satellite television. Her only sources of information are state-run television channels.
Sarband village in Sughd Province
"Many people heard about the Rasht events only after bodies of dead soldiers were coming from Rasht," says a young man, who introduces himself as Mustafo, a college student from the northern town of Gafurov. Mustafo says people don't want another war in Tajikistan and hopes the government "finishes off the terrorists in Rasht."
Mustafo, however, says he is not entirely happy with Rahmon's government. Unlike the older generation of Tajiks, who credit Rahmon with bringing peace to the country, Mustafo is too young to remember the war. He says that "today and the future matter most."
"Rahmon brought his fellow natives of the southern Kulob area to power and they are grabbing all the lucrative positions, taking over all businesses everywhere," Mustafo says. These are sentiments felt by many Tajiks all over the country, where clan loyalties heavily influence politics.
The majority of major businesses in Tajikistan are run by people close to the president, his relatives, or at least his fellow Kulobis. Important official posts, such as heads of regional police departments, regional prosecutors, and tax and customs agencies are largely filled by native Kulobs. The heads of all Dushanbe universities are natives of Kulob, as are mayors of the capital's four districts.
Tajiks call the trend "regionalism."
In Dushanbe, many people seem to feel that if there exists any threat to Rahmon's government, it derives not from a group of isolated fighters in the Rasht Valley, but from the increasing displeasure with "regionalism" and rampant corruption of his own regime.