Trouble appears to be brewing on Afghanistan’s border with the remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, in eastern Tajikistan.
Or at least it appears to be.
As is often the way in Tajikistan, relying on the official narrative for a sense of the unfolding events is proving more confounding than enlightening.
On April 28, Khovar state news agency reported that a high-ranking security services officer was earlier that day killed during an armed clash with an alleged gang of drug smugglers trying to cross into Tajik territory.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, said in a statement that three of the attackers dumped drugs, weapons and ammunition and fled back into Afghanistan, but that another three Tajik accomplices had been detained. The haul of abandoned items is said to have comprised 45 kilograms of heroin, one Kalashnikov assault rifle with four magazines, 74 cartridges, night-vision goggles, and $10,000 in cash.
RFE/RL’s Tajik service, Radioi Ozodi, named the killed officer as Komron Rajabzoda, the head of the GKNB in the capital of GBAO, Khorog. If this detail is confirmed, Rajabzoda will be highest-ranking GKNB officer to have been killed in the line of duty in the mountainous Pamirs region since General Abdullo Nazarov, the then-head of the regional branch of the GKNB, was stabbed to death in 2012.
Earlier in the week, video images of another clash along the border in eastern Tajikistan circulated on social media.
In a subsequent account, the GKNB said that two people it claimed were members of a militant group had early on April 26 crossed into Tajikistan in the vicinity of Yazgulom, in the GBAO’s Vanj district, with the intention of carrying out a terrorist act. The same statement said both individuals were killed in an anti-terrorist operation.
In its own statement, the Foreign Ministry implied that the attackers were operating at the behest of an unspecified organization.
"Both terrorists were neutralized by the law enforcement agencies ... Their insidious plan was thwarted, as were the intentions of their patrons," the ministry said.
Bomdod, a Prague-based news website focused on Tajik current affairs, cited its own unnamed sources as saying that six people had filtered across the border and that two were known to be Tajik citizens. The outlet cited sources as saying that while two men were killed, another four members of the same group fled the scene and had gone into hiding. The group is suspected to be made up of members of the Jamaat Ansarullah militant group, Bomdod quoted its sources as saying.
None of these details could be independently verified.
There is yet more backstory, however. On April 20 or thereabouts, the Embassy of Afghanistan in the capital, Dushanbe, which is still run by avowed opponents of the regime now in charge of Kabul, held a ceremony in memory of Afghan fighters and leaders killed by the Taliban.
A flurry of indignant social media activity ensued among sympathizers of the Taliban regime. One Twitter user with almost 35,000 followers wrote in a Pashtun-language post, without providing evidence, that the government of Tajikistan was hatching a plot to mount an attack on Afghanistan. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has made little secret of his dislike of the Taliban, but he has at no point even suggested that he was prepared to engage in armed conflict with his militant neighbors to the south.
In the event, however, the incursion appears to have gone in the other direction. Another seemingly Afghan Twitter user claimed on April 23 to have been informed by unnamed sources that a “group of [four] Tajik terrorists” had entered Tajikistan and that they were being hunted down by the authorities. This tweet was posted three days prior to the date that Tajik GKNB said the alleged Jamaat Ansarullah cell had made its incursion.
Accounts of an incursion taking place on April 23 were also relayed by Bomdod and Azda.tv, a news website linked to the opposition-in-exile. The reporting of those outlets hinted at a less illustrious performance by GKNB. Their articles suggested that four of the people crossing the border had managed to flee and that the security services were doing house-to-house searches in a vain attempt to locate them.
It is not clear that those reputed fugitives have been captured, nor is it known why the GKNB has sought to convey the impression this clash took place three days after the real date.
Various bits of footage shared online have done little to clarify the chronology of events. One shows what appears to be a gunfight taking place in the daytime somewhere in the Vanj district. It is not clear when the footage was filmed. In another clip, an 18-year-old resident of the same area tells the person filming, apparently a soldier, that two unknown people turned up at his home – one of them speaking Yazghulyam, a Pamiri language, while the other spoke in Tajik – and asked for bread. The man said the pair were carrying automatic rifles.
The strange and unexplained aspects of these episodes have prompted some critics of the secretive and authoritarian government to question the official narrative. Anora Sarkorova, a Tajik journalist based in Europe, speculated that the government may be growing concerned at the sustained international criticism leveled at it over the intense security crackdown it has unleashed against people in the Pamirs, a population ethnically distinct from the majority Tajiks, over the past two years.
Casting doubt on the accuracy of the GKNB’s statement, Sarkorova suggested, without providing evidence, that claims of a militant attack may have been fabricated.
“The regime is capable of drawing up any report, filming any video with fake terrorists and pretend weapons,” she wrote on her Telegram account. “They have been filming this same movie in Tajikistan for years now.”