Questions in Tajikistan over Real Target of “Terrorist” Railway Bridge Bombing in Uzbekistan

Andrew McGregor

November 28, 2011

A mysterious blast on a vital Uzbekistan rail route on November 17 has been followed by an even more mysterious Uzbek disinterest in repairing the damage or sharing details of the investigation into the incident. The Tashkent government formed a commission to investigate the bombing of the railway bridge when news of the bombing first appeared in the Uzbek press two days after the incident (Gazeta.uz, November 19).

The blast, described as a “terrorist act,” occurred at a railway bridge on the line connecting the Termez terminal at the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border and the city of Qurghonteppa in southwestern Tajikistan (Pravda Vostoka [Tashkent], November 19; RIA Novosti, November 19). More precisely, the attack came in the Surkhandarya region between the Galaba and Amu Zang stations along a stretch of line the runs parallel to the Amu Darya River. Afghanistan lies on the southern side of the river. The roughly 250 km rail line is an important commercial outlet for Tajikistan, which has lately had differences with Uzbekistan over the administration of their mutual border.


Termez is the southern terminal of the “Northern Distribution Network” (NDN), the supply network providing for U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan. Supplies must be offloaded from the rail system at Termez and transferred to trucks for the final lap into Afghanistan. The United States negotiated an agreement to use Termez in 2008, though the German military has quietly leased an air base there since 2002.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Uzbekistan have become rare in recent years, partly as the result of a relentless government campaign against any activity that remotely resembles any form of religious extremism. Security services cast a wide net in their search for militants and there are numerous reports from human rights organizations that detention can mean severe treatment and even death. A closed-door trial is currently underway in Tashkent of 16 Muslims charged with participation in “extremist religious, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organizations” (UzNews.net, November 15). Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (NSS) has even gone so far as to issue a November 12 warning to Uzbekistan’s writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers to avoid the use of any kind of religious theme in their works (UzNews.net, November 12).

If the bombing was the work of Islamist militants wanting to disrupt the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), their choice to attack the line to southwestern Tajikistan rather than the main line running north from Termez seems odd. The absence of a claim of responsibility if the bomb was indeed the work of Islamist militants is also very unusual. Such groups typically make maximum political value of every attack against the state or its institutions.

Map showing the Termez – Qurghonteppa Rail-line running east from Termez

Though the blast occurred in Uzbekistan, the greatest harm has been inflicted on Tajikistan’s rail system, which incurred losses in finding alternative transportation for stranded passengers in Uzbekistan and now has hundreds of freight cars loaded with goods in Uzbekistan unable to cross back into southwestern Tajikistan. According to a Tajik rail official, the Uzbeks would normally have the capability of repairing such damage within a day. Instead, a Tajik offer of assistance went unacknowledged and no timetable has been set for repairs (Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], November 18). Shipping goods through another line to Dushanbe and then shipping them by truck through mountain passes to southern Tajikistan would be prohibitively expensive, so any prolonged interruption to the Termez Qurghontepparail line would have a severe effect on the Tajik economy.

Relations between Uzbekistan and the smaller and more isolated Tajikistan have been strained for at least a decade by a number of issues, most notably Tajikistan’s ongoing construction of the massive Roghun hydroelectric dam project, which Uzbekistan claims would damage that nation’s vital cotton production industry.

The latest blow to Uzbek-Tajik relations came on November 13, when an Uzbek border guard was shot and killed by Tajik border guards who were allegedly helping narcotics smugglers bring 3.84 kilograms of heroin into Uzbekistan (Interfax/AVN Online, November 17). Tajik authorities initially denied the involvement of Tajik border guards in the incident, which allegedly involved personnel from the Tajik Main Border Directorate’s Sughd regional department (Regnum, November 17). A spokesman for the Tajik Border Guards later admitted that a Tajik border guard had killed one of his Uzbek counterparts, but only did so after the Uzbeks had crossed into Tajik territory to protect the smugglers. The spokesman insisted that no drugs were found at the scene (RFE/RL, November 15).

Uzbekistan’s NSS has demanded an unbiased investigation by Tajik authorities regarding the Border Guards’ involvement in drug trafficking while warning of tough measures to counter future attacks. The drugs were apparently concealed inside electric heaters and the NSS invited their Tajik counterparts to examine the remaining heaters to see if drugs were concealed within them. Uzbek officials have, however, conceded that the Tajik border guards may have been deceived into helping smuggle electric heaters rather than narcotics, a scenario based on the claim that the guards received a far smaller payment than is normally associated with assistance in drug smuggling (Interfax/AVN [Moscow], November 17).

On the same day as the railway bridge bombing, Tashkent issued a strong warning to Tajikistan to avoid a repeat of the November 13 border incident: “Should the Tajik side act like this again, the Uzbek side retains the right to take the toughest and most resolute measures in line with the norms and practice of international relations in order to crack down on aggressive provocations on the border, to ensure the security of citizens and Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity in full” (Interfax [Moscow], November 17). In Tajikistan, however, there are now suggestions that the railway blast may have more to do with Uzbekistan’s opposition to the Roghun dam project than with terrorism (ImruzNews [Dushanbe], November 21).

This article first appeared in the November 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. Reprinted in Asia Times, December 2, 2011: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/ML02Ag03.html

Khartoum Besieged? Sudan’s Rebel Movements Unite against the Center

Andrew McGregor

November 24, 2011

Sudan’s military offensive against rebels in its southern Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces has begun to spill over the new border with South Sudan with potentially devastating results for the region. As Khartoum descends into a severe financial crisis caused, in part, by the loss of three-quarters of its oil-fields to the newly sovereign South Sudan, it is now being challenged by a new alliance of rebel movements from Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and eastern Sudan. The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) is contesting the post-independence domination of Sudan’s non-Arab majority by an Arab minority hailing from the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan.

A statement issued at the SRF’s November 11 meeting asserted the alliance’s determination “to overthrow the [ruling] National Congress Party (NCP) regime using all available means, above all, the convergence of civil political action and armed struggle.” [1] As well as a “High-Level Political Committee,” the alliance has established a “Joint High-Level Military Committee” to coordinate the armed struggle: “Its first responsibility is to repel the NCP’s vengeful dry season offensive, which is targeting civilians in war zones, in all the theaters of conflict, including Khartoum…” The statement makes clear that the constituent groups of the SRF believe the time is ripe to topple the regime, claiming it is “presently at its weakest – economically, politically and militarily. The regime is imploding and will vanish, like other corrupt regimes around us that have come to rely on repression to retain power.” [1]

The statement was signed by representatives of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A – N) and three Darfur rebel movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the largely Fur Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Abdel Wahid (SLM/A – AW), and the largely Zaghawa Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A – MM). The latter’s commander, Minni Minawi, had sided with the government for some time after signing the 2006 Abuja agreement with Khartoum, but has now returned to the rebellion.

The groundwork for the formation of the SRF was laid in August when the SPLM/A-N signed an agreement in the South Kordofan town of Kauda with two Darfur rebel movements pledging to overthrow the central government in Khartoum.The formation of the alliance was quickly condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as an escalation in tension possibly leading to a new civil war, but the secretary-general’s remarks were challenged by the SPLM-N’s own secretary general, Yasir Arman, who accused the UN leader of supporting “aggressors and war criminals” (Sudan Tribune, November 17).

 

 

Beja Congress Fighters

On November 15, the Beja Congress of northeastern Sudan announced its decision to join the SRF. Founded in 1958, the Beja Congress was originally a political party, but has gradually grown into an armed resistance movement fighting a low-intensity insurgency on behalf of the roughly two million indigenous non-Arab Beja people. The Congress has resisted efforts by Khartoum to “Arabize” the Beja tribes, noting in its announcement that “The misery and suffering of the [Beja] people is increasing due to poverty, starvation and other deadly diseases. The ruling regime in Sudan is subjecting its people to humiliation and tyranny. They are arrogant and killing the marginalized people” (Radio Dabanga, November 16).

The SRF also announced that the Koch Revolution Movement (KRM) had joined the alliance (Radio Dabanga, November 18). Though little is known of the KRF, it is likely based in the Koch County of South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State, which recently suffered from a local rebellion by a pro-government Nuer militia led by the late Colonel Gatluak Gai (murdered by his deputy in late July; for Gatluak Gai, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 12).

Unresolved Issues

Prominent opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party and former Prime Minister of Sudan before being overthrown by al-Bashir in 1989, recently described the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan as a “flawed agreement” that “left behind time bombs,” namely the unresolved status of oil-rich Abyei District, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile Province. The latter two regions lie north of the border between Sudan and South Sudan, but supplied thousands of fighters allied to Southern forces in the 1983-2005 civil war. Al-Mahdi blames the regime for the proliferation of rebel groups in Sudan: “There is no doubt that the ruling regime in Sudan has played an important role in weakening unarmed political parties. In fact during one period they said we do not negotiate with anyone except those who are armed. This tempted a great number of youths to carry arms” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 13).

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has loudly accused South Sudan of preparing a new war against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), claiming to have documented proof of his charges. Saying that Khartoum had already exercised “too much patience and self-restraint,” al-Bashir issued a stern warning to the South: “We tell our brothers in the South that if they want peace, we want peace. If they want war, our army is there… Our message to our brothers in the South is this: you won the South not because you were victorious [in the war], but because of an agreement and a pledge we upheld [i.e. the CPA], so you had better stay in your place” (Sudan Tribune, November 7).

A pro-government news agency in Khartoum reminded the rebels that in a world preoccupied with a number of crises, their cause is unlikely to garner international support: “The engineers of the new alliance might think that they will get support from everywhere, but this is just an illusion because the world is