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More than a ‘Border Skirmish’ Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

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More than a ‘Border Skirmish’ Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

The recent outbreak of hostilities on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border represents a dangerous escalation from previous tension and skirmishes to a distinct act of aggression.

More than a ‘Border Skirmish’ Between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

A military helicopter flies over the Kyrgyz-Tajik border near Batken, southwestern Kyrgyzstan, Saturday, September 17, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Danil Usmanov

On September 14, two servicemen of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security were injured in the course of heavy shelling from the Tajik side of the border near the Bulak-Bashy area. By noon, the shelling stopped, and in the afternoon, Kyrgyz and Tajik regional leaders met to discuss the situation at the border. On September 16, the border issue was discussed by Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. 

However, the heavy shelling of the Batken region in Kyrgyzstan escalated on September 17, during which Kyrgyz border villages Kulundu, Maksat, and Dzahni-Dzher among others were shelled. Kyrgyzstan initially reported 36 deaths and 136,000 internally displaced persons, as well as significant damage to the civilian infrastructure, including Batken Airport and a bridge. Although the Tajik government did not initially comment on casualties, by September 18, it said that at least 35 had been killed, with unnamed officials telling RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that the death-toll was higher. On September 18, Kyrgyz authorities updated their figures to at least 59 killed.

An Act of Aggression or Border Skirmishes?

Some international media, especially Russian government outlets, were quick to categorize the events as yet another border skirmish between two impoverished countries somewhere in the outskirts of “Russia’s backyard.” While it is true that the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is the location of regular clashes of various scales and gravity, this case stands out in that it appears to be an act of aggression by Tajikistan against Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the two presidents missed a critical opportunity to de-escalate the situation early on, building on a legacy of lax leadership on both parts when it comes to settling the undemarcated sections of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The SCO was a missed opportunity it seems that neither president seized upon following a long line of Kyrgyz presidents and Rahmon being unable to effectively deal with the border. 

Rahmon and Japarov spent several days next to each other at the SCO Summit in Samarkand. During the summit, the two held a meeting to discuss the border issue, among other matters pertaining to bilateral relations. Both presidents expressed commitment to resolve any issues through diplomatic means. If either Rahmon or Japarov felt strongly that there were any unresolved issues regarding the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, those issues could have been raised and discussed again during the formal or informal parts of the SCO Summit. Both presidents’ statements after their meeting noted discussing the border issue, with the Kyrgyz side highlighting a ceasefire, but it’s not clear from what we know about their interactions at the summit whether they took the situation as seriously as necessary. 

It appears that Tajikistan used heavy military equipment and military personnel as early as September 14. Judging by the sheer scale of the operation, the amount of heavy military machinery in operation and the number of army troops, this was a premeditated and planned military operation. Given Rahmon’s overwhelming control of the Tajik government, he must have ordered full preparedness for this operation either during the SCO summit or before it. 

One feature that sets this incident apart from previous border skirmishes is that Tajikistan targeted civilian infrastructure located in undisputed Kyrgyzstan’s territory, away from the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Batken, the regional capital sitting 10 km from the border and indisputably Kyrgyz territory, was reportedly shelled. The use of indiscriminate shelling indicates a possible goal of driving civilians out of the area. The heavy shelling from the Tajik side indeed pushed a large number of Batken residents out of their homes. 

What appears to be a Tajik act of aggression has already had devastating consequences. And the situation escalated, with Tajikistan’s military actions echoed by a forceful Kyrgyz response. As noted above, the death-toll has risen to at least 59 Kyrgyz citizens and at least 35 Tajik citizens, with reports of hundreds injured.

As political analyst Emil Joroev put it on Twitter: “There are border incidents (sadly and shamefully too many), then there are outright invasions, inflicting large-scale, indiscriminate civilian damage and harm, within one side.”

Why is it important to differentiate this case from the past cases of trans-border violence? If the history of wars teaches us anything, it is that any effort in future peacebuilding and reconciliation requires meticulous fact-finding and unbiased analysis. When we call an act of aggression against a sovereign nation merely a “border skirmish,” we devalue the root causes of such aggression, disregard its explosive conflict potential, and leave it unresolved. If we call it what it is — an act of aggression — it immediately requires international attention and resolution within the means of international law. 

Why Now?

While it might still be early to dive into analytical conclusions, there is a range of potential reasons why Tajikistan engaged in an armed attack on Kyrgyzstan at this specific moment. Some of these reasons are domestic as they stem from internal political circumstances. Others are related to regional and global developments.

Tajikistan’s long-standing President Emomali Rahmon is 69 years old. There is speculation that he plans to hand over his position to his son Rustam Emomali, who is currently the speaker of Tajikistan’s Parliament. Such a succession process usually requires a demonstration of power, a showcase of stability of the regime, and the simplest way is to start a “short, victorious war,” an old trick of desperate regimes. 

In addition, Rahmon might wish to distract the attention of both domestic and international audiences away from the fate of the surprisingly resilient and defiant protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) populated by the Pamiri minority. The protests started in November 2021, after a local activist was brutally murdered by the Security Services. Despite a violent crackdown on the protests earlier this year and attempts to silence media at home, the news about the government’s brutal treatment of the Pamiris continues to flow. Well, not anymore, as the recent invasion of Kyrgyzstan took over all regional and global headlines, putting the fate of GBAO back in the shadows.

Finally, the Tajik aggression against Kyrgyzstan takes place against the backdrop of armed conflict across the former Soviet Union. In recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has suffered serious setbacks; and last week the perpetual border conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan again roared to life. In fact, five out of six members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in which Russia is the key partner, are effectively engaged in armed conflicts: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Armenia has already appealed to use Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty to trigger an intervention by the body (as happened in January in Kazakhstan) but has not been satisfied with the response so far. What the CSTO would, or could, do in the case of one member attacking another member remains unclear, as it has in past iterations of conflict within the bloc.

What Next?

Emotions are running high on both sides of the border, while the two leaders do not effectively communicate with their respective publics enough to address the fears and frustrations of their people and the concerns of the international community. Given the scale of destruction, it is difficult to imagine that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could address this conflict without external mediators. It is important for the international community and international organizations to step in and help with fact-finding and reconciliation. Otherwise, the world will get yet another open wound of conflict and hostility.