Since May 2021, when the US and its allies started withdrawing their troops, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically. Radical Islamist Taliban fighters have now regained control of the country. Countless people have fled to neighbouring regions. Women in particular, as well as the people who worked for the foreign forces, fear for their lives. The Pamir Kyrgyz who fled from the Taliban, only to be sent back home by Tajikistan’s authorities, also face an uncertain future.
The ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan
The Pamir Kyrgyz are the descendants of Kyrgyz who arrived in Afghanistan between 1575 and 1930 as a consequence of various threats and expulsions. Today, they live in the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, where mountain ravines are interspersed by remote valleys. Due to its geographical isolation, this ethnic group was largely untouched by sovietisation and was therefore able, for the most part, to preserve its traditional nomadic lifestyle and its language, ethnic identity and Islamic faith. Today, in the rugged terrain of the Pamirs, the Wakhan Kyrgyz tend their livestock and weather the harsh conditions. Until 1973, they numbered around 10,000 and counted as one of the official nations of the Republic of Afghanistan; they were also assigned the task of patrolling the region’s borders as part of the official border service (most have no official nationality or are stateless). Since then, their numbers have drastically declined due to the extreme social instability caused by ongoing conflicts and violence at the hands of the first Taliban regime. A further factor was the mass exodus of several large Afghan Kyrgyz clans to Pakistan, Canada and Turkey, where they were accepted as refugees. An estimated 700-2,000 Pamir Kyrgyz still live in Afghanistan today.
Stay or go?
Since as early as 2012, the government in Kyrgyzstan – these communities’ historical homeland – has been attempting to resettle Afghanistan’s Kyrgyz under a repatriation programme. After various visits and discussions with government representatives and community leaders from Afghanistan, several groups of Pamir Kyrgyz left for Kyrgyzstan between 2017 and 2020. Soon afterwards, however, some of them returned to Afghanistan. Since taking office, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov has stated his intention to “unite the nation”, but thus far, not all the Afghan Kyrgyz have shown any desire to leave their home region. What they wanted from Kyrgyzstan’s government was financial and material support, as well as clarification of the issue of autonomy with the outgoing Afghan government. Opponents of resettlement took the view that the Afghan Kyrgyz should stay in their home regions due to the latter’s geostrategic significance. What’s more, some independent experts tended towards the assumption that resettlement of these communities could destabilise the situation in their home and destination regions alike. In light of recent developments, there is also a fear that due to their favourable strategic position between Tajikistan and Pakistan, these regions could serve as a new breeding ground for terrorism.
An uncertain future under the Taliban
After the withdrawal of the US troops, the Taliban seized control of multiple areas of Afghanistan, displacing thousands of civilians. In mid-July, around 345 Afghan Kyrgyz fled to neighbouring Tajikistan. They were initially housed in the Murghab region, which is also inhabited by ethnic Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry approached the Central Asia regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and requested assistance with the evacuation of the ethnic Kyrgyz from Tajikistan. Within a week, Tajikistan’s state news agency Khovar, citing Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security, reported that the Pamir Kyrgyz refugees had been sent back to Afghanistan, along with their four thousand animals and their vehicles. According to the Committee, their personal safety had been guaranteed by the Afghan government, and that meanwhile, Tajikistan’s border troops had taken control of the situation along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
It is still unclear how the return of the Afghan Kyrgyz to Afghanistan took place against a backdrop of armed clashes between Afghan troops and the Taliban, and how the – now collapsed – government intended to guarantee their safety in the present situation. What’s more, the conduct of the government of Tajikistan raises concerns that the escape corridor to the north will remain closed to them in future. Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia expert at RFE/RL, believes that by ignoring Kyrgyzstan’s request for the resettlement of the ethnic Kyrgyz, the Tajik authorities have missed an opportunity to improve relations with their neighbour. Following armed clashes between Tajik and Kyrgyz border forces on 28-29 April, which led to dozens of fatalities on both sides, relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain tense.
The Taliban have now seized control of almost all the provinces lying adjacent to the Central Asian states but have not crossed the borders. When the Taliban took control of the capital Kabul, the government of Kyrgyzstan announced that it was willing to accept 1,200 Pamir Kyrgyz, but they would have to make their own way to the Kyrgyz border. Around 20 Kyrgyz nationals were flown out of Kabul in evacuations organised by the Russian military. On the situation of the Pamir Kyrgyz, the Russian media merely reported that as a traditional Muslim people that does not involve itself in politics or conflict, this group is not at risk. Indeed, a representative of the Pamir Kyrgyz stated that they had held meetings with Taliban fighters in their home region on two occasions and that they had been promised safety and even support in future. The remote Wakhan Corridor may offer its inhabitants a measure of protection, but it could also become a prison on the “roof of the world” if the dramatic deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan continues.
Dr Mahabat Sadyrbek read Political Sciences, Languages and Law in Bishkek and Hanover and European Studies in Brussels. She completed her doctorate in legal anthropology at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Since 2017, she has worked as a researcher in the Law and Anthropology Department of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale).