This original essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia.
In August 1998, at our little house on the Aegean coast of Turkey, I was eagerly looking forward to my first assignment as ambassador when I saw blaring headlines about the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. I knew immediately that things now would be very different in my new post, Tajikistan.
Tajikistan was already a problem assignment. The civil war had cleared out many of the country’s best educated, a United Nations-brokered agreement had been signed, but the violence – regional, interethnic, and among power groups – was not over. The UN had withdrawn many staffers and closed its office for 10 months after four personnel were killed in July 1998; violence continued nationwide.
After the Africa attacks, a State Department security team traveled the world looking at embassies and decided that the proposed Dushanbe location Washington had started remodeling did not make the cut. That September, concerned about potential revenge attacks following U.S. missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan that were carried out in response to the Africa bombings, the State Department ordered American diplomats to relocate to Kazakhstan.
Washington wanted to support the Newly Independent States of the Soviet Union, however, so an intense interagency discussion took place about what to do. Eventually, the U.S. government decided that we would continue our presence in Dushanbe, but that the diplomatic staff would remain in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and travel to Tajikistan “on an interim basis.” That was a little ambiguous but at least it wasn’t “no.”
Accordingly, I had a quick private swearing in at the Department of State – “You can have your party later,” they said – and went off to glitzy, oil-rich Almaty to find my small staff waiting in a shiny new Turkish-built hotel. We hastened to Dushanbe, on separate flights for security reasons.
The trip across the jagged white Tien Shan mountains was dazzling, while my coat froze to the not-100-percent-airtight door. We landed rather heavily, I should say, in Khujand, where a last rebellion against the central government had just been suppressed. The airport was littered with destroyed vehicles, burned-out structures, and other detritus. “Oh,” I said, and the plane took off for the capital across more mountains, arriving in impoverished Dushanbe, where the basic infrastructure of the embassy, including homes, vehicles and a dedicated building, was already in place. Only the diplomats were not there, except “intermittently.”
On November 11, I presented my credentials to President Emomali Rahmonov, who received me, as he always did, politely and attentively, notwithstanding the ongoing tensions in the country. Immediately, I started looking for an embassy site that would meet the State Department’s new security criteria. This puzzled the Tajiks, including the powerful mayor, but we were shown a site that, several years later, came to house the embassy. The embassy staff was multiethnic: Tajik, Uzbek, Tatar, Badakhshani and Russian and sometimes several of these all at once. Our head employee, the political adviser, was a Tajik, but when his brother showed me around Samarkand, in neighboring Uzbekistan, he identified himself as an Uzbek.
Given our constraints on physical presence in Dushanbe and mobility in Tajikistan, it quickly became beneficial to be co-located in Almaty, where many U.S. government organizations and NGOs had their regional headquarters. The USAID regional office was a major coordinator and backer of programs in Tajikistan, ranging from massive food assistance and home construction after a flood, to women’s development cooperatives for refugees in the south, and extensive cooperation with the Aga Khan Foundation.
Shadow of civil war
In the Soviet period, the wealthier and more industrialized northerners had dominated the country and had close ties to Uzbekistan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, perhaps up to 100,000 died in a civil war between the northerners; the United Tajik Opposition, which tended Islamist; Ismailis from eastern Badakhshan; and the southern Communist cadres centered on Kulyab, the last of whom ultimately won.
But won did not mean over. In the late 1990s, as soon as the sun went down in Dushanbe, gunshots would start to ring out. Kidnappings were not uncommon. The embassy guards were fit and ready, and reconnoitered all destinations. By day, many normal embassy functions took place: maintaining the ties that already existed with the government, other embassies and contacts across the political and sociological spectrum.
At this time, the peace accords were still being implemented – the United Tajik Opposition had been promised a share of political power – so there was a cautious atmosphere of hope. Said Abdullo Nuri, the head of the United Tajik Opposition and the Islamic Renaissance Party believed that the agreements would be fulfilled. It was he who had agreed to the reconciliation talks. Nuri had been sent to the U.S. by the embassy before I arrived as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program, which sends VIPs on short visits to the U.S. He told me that what he wanted for Tajikistan is simply what exists in the U.S. However, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan two years earlier, and the rise of the Salafist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which took up residence in Tajikistan’s Karategin Valley before moving on to Afghanistan, dimmed prospects for religious dialogue at that time.
An added complicating factor was Iran. The end of the Soviet Union had led to an increased interest in Islam and concern about Islamic fundamentalism in the former republics. Tajik and Persian are mutually intelligible, and most Tajiks are Sunni Muslim, with the exception of the Shia Ismailis in Badakhshan. Shia Iran had sought influence in Tajikistan after the end of the Soviet Union, sending books and teachers, inter alia, feeding fears of widening religious influence and the spread of Iran’s revolution. Said Nuri had lived in exile in Tehran for many years; Iranian firms were involved in efforts to build a new central mosque; and a large statue of Ferdowsi, the poet whose Shahnameh is Iran’s national epic, was erected at a central location. There had been some discussion of changing the alphabet from Cyrillic to Persian. That quickly came to an end. Ferdowsi, a symbol of Iran, was moved away from the center and replaced by a more national figure, the eponymous Ismail Samani, founder of the Samanid Empire that marked the return of Persian political and cultural eminence to Central Asia after the Arab conquest. The figure of the statue looked not unlike President Emomali Rahmonov (now Rahmon). Tajik nationalist rhetoric and references filled the media, particularly as relations with Turkic Uzbekistan were at a low point.
By 1999, there were already signs that Rahmonov was consolidating power. That year, the election for president that was meant to conclude the peace process was widely criticized as unfair. The opposition was only persuaded at the last minute by the international community, including the United Nations Mission of Observers to Tajikistan (UNMOT) and the U.S., to participate, and garnered only a tiny percentage of votes. The UN, our embassy and others worked to have the peace accords adhered to and movement towards democracy take place. In this early period civil society had some opportunity to organize and make its voice heard.
Geography was part of the problem
Tajikistan was created by the genius of Soviet cartographers as a you-can’t-get-there-from-here conglomeration of groups and regions.
The more prosperous north was physically cut off at least six months of the year by snow at the 11,000-foot Anzob Pass (there is now a tunnel). One had to pass through Uzbekistan during those months, and the Uzbeks cut rail and road access whenever they were annoyed, which was frequently. There was no road to China in the east (now there’s a bad one). The borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are a spaghetti soup of contested water access, meandering roads and disputed grazing land that continues to lead to violent clashes.
The one road from Dushanbe to the vast bare expanse of Gorno-Badakhshan was at that time so unwieldy – floods, bandits, warlords – that it was nearly unusable for diplomats, so we had to go the other way, through Kyrgyzstan, south from Osh, and up to a rusty gate at 12,000 feet manned by an adolescent with a gun.
Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan borders Chinese Xinjiang and is inhabited by yaks, marmots, and the elusive Marco Polo sheep. We could have used oxygen.
On a trip through this remote terrain, I had dressed in suit and tie, to the puzzlement of my guards. “You’ll see,” I told them. And sure enough, about 20 kilometers before the only town in eastern Badakhshan, Murghab (“Bird River”), we were met by a delegation of local officials accompanied by young ladies in velvet dresses and cone hats with bird plumes, carrying a large sign that touchingly read, “Welcome Dear Quests!” We sampled the traditional bread and salt, someone struck up a tune and we all danced in the road.
Culture and life
Because of my background in literature and languages of the region, I had many discussions related to the interface between culture, religion and politics, and was made an honorary member of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences. I tried to conduct all my official meetings in Tajik, using the good offices of my Tajik executive assistant, a former Fulbright scholar in literature at the University of Chicago, to supplement my Persian. I had done the same thing in a previous posting with Azeri Turkish in Azerbaijan to make it clear to my interlocutors that this was a new situation, they were an independent nation and we respected them for themselves, as equals.
On one occasion I was invited to the first buzkashi match to be held in Dushanbe after the end of the civil war. Buzkashi is the wild game where horseback riders struggle to carry a sheep or goat carcass through a mêlée of riders to a goal. In the Tajik version there are few rules, perhaps hundreds of players and lots of others just milling around the playing field, including men holding infants. At one point the entire field came galloping wildly towards the VIP stand and then didn’t stop, horses crashing into (expensive) parked vehicles and up into the stands, shattering railings, etc. As I clutched a pillar, a female deputy foreign minister, whose own sister had been kidnapped several weeks earlier, never to be found, looked over to me from where she was holding on for dear life and said, with gleaming eye, “This is what they think is democracy!”
Even though we had limited funds, we were able to have some soft power impact in Tajikistan. Such impact is often more lasting than other kinds of relations. In the basement of the Dushanbe Museum I saw the pieces of a large recumbent Buddha stored in dusty cases. They had been basically consigned there since their discovery in 1959. The Embassy, working with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Washington, was able to petition the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation to get a small grant for the restoration of the clay figure. This seed money led to the eventual restoration of the Buddha which is now, after the destruction by the Taliban in Bamiyan, the largest Buddha in Central Asia and a featured place for visiting dignitaries. At the time, many people in Tajikistan were unaware of the amounts of security and economic assistance we had given, but everyone was aware of the U.S. gift honoring their culture.
Similarly, in the spring of 2001, the embassy was able to sponsor a concert of classical Western music at the Dushanbe Opera and Ballet Theater, the first concert of classical music since the end of the civil war. Charles Ansbacher, an American conductor with wide international experience and acclaim, led the orchestra in a selection of Western and Tajik music, including a new tone poem by celebrated Tajik composer Tolib Shakhidi. The United States received many thanks for this gesture towards a return to normality.
Dealing with it
Our situation in Dushanbe and Almaty, always playing catch up with each other and our NGO colleagues, had positive and negative aspects. We went back and forth irregularly, for security reasons. Each person would go and stay for several days, never on a schedule. My reasoning was that if I didn’t know when I was going to be getting on a plane, it would be hard for anyone with nefarious intentions to plan around that. Occasionally we even turned back on the road to the airport or remained longer where we were because of some concerning circumstance that popped up. Once or twice we got complaints from Washington that we were staying too long and too often and we had to promise to be good and intermittent. But we got our work done.
There were several other embassies that only came to Dushanbe from time to time, so we were not a complete anomaly. Some of them had their missions in Almaty, and I visited them there, being careful only to meet with embassies and organizations that also worked in Tajikistan, as I was not accredited to Kazakhstan. It was also good to benefit from the expertise and friendship of our colleagues in Almaty, a pleasant modern city my son described as “Soviet suburbia.”
My mission, as I understood it, was to maintain the American presence and commitment to Tajikistan despite the difficult security situation. This included regular meetings with the president, the foreign minister, UN officials and Tajiks of every stripe. We had little to offer in terms of assistance at the time, but we managed to increase aid from $13 million to $30 million per year. The important thing was the bilateral relationship and goodwill, which meant that the Tajik government was open to all kinds of cooperation with us after September 11, 2001, by which time I had left.
The clouds over Central Asia had been growing during my tenure, as the IMU moved down from Tajikistan to northern Afghanistan where they joined up with the Taliban. Dushanbe was relieved to see them go, but it was clearly not the end of the matter. The Northern Alliance was being pushed out of Afghanistan. Its leaders came and went from Dushanbe, we were told. As spring turned to summer in 2001, the assistance organizations and the government were preparing for an inflow of refugees from northern Afghanistan, the kind of flow that has occurred several times in both directions. Then, that September 9, the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated in Afghanistan. Two days later the attacks in the U.S. took place, and the world changed forever.
Thanks to the world of the internet and the world of COVID, working in two places at once and long-distance is now common. This was not the case 20 years ago. It was strange and challenging. In my last message to Washington, I ended with a poem I had written earlier when I came across a reference to a rare Himalayan bird in the Princeton University Library. It still reflects how I felt about my Tajikistan adventure. To wit:
I am Finn’s Bya the rarest bird of all
You will never find me sitting upon your garden wall
And only see me flying in the shadows of your mind
No landscape is complete without my absence
I am the empty spot on every tree
The woodlands echo with my silence
The rarest bird of all
Robert P. Finn was U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan from 1998 to 2001, and to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004.