Last week your blogger enjoyed a retreat from the heat of Dushanbe (where it is now threatening to approach 40 degrees on a daily basis) to the town of Romit, about an hour’s drive northeast into the Fan Mountains. The purpose was to attend a Mid-Term Review of the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP)’s Tajikistan Mine Action Strategic Program (TMASP) 2010-2015. Basically, a 3-day summit of all the main actors involved in landmine related issues (land release, victim assistance, mine risk education, advocacy, etc.), to assess progress made, and to update the strategic plan to address challenges for the future.
As a representative of Norwegian People’s Aid (which is involved almost exclusively in land release, aka demining), my role in the conference was marginal but a good opportunity to learn and network with interesting people. When the participants were split up into different Working Groups to focus on specific elements of the TMASP, I joined the group on transferring ownership of the mine action program from the UNDP to the Government of Tajikistan. Along with representatives of other international organizations (OSCE, GICHD, FSD), my group included members of the Tajik Ministry of Defense, National Guard, Border Forces, and the Union of Sappers of Tajikistan (UST).
As expected, progress on reviewing and updating the TMASP was painful and slow for our group. Frankly, it was difficult to arrive at consensus on even the most basic definitions – for instance, what does it mean for the Tajikistan Mine Action Centre (TMAC) to be established as a “legal entity”? Technically TMAC is already “legal” in the sense that its existence is authorized by an MoU between UNDP and the Tajik Government, yet it remains in an institutional grey-zone because it is not under the formal authority of any specific Ministry. To add to the confusion, slight differences of wording can translate into entirely different meanings between English, Russian, and Tajik.
So, what interesting things did I learn after three days of power-point slideshows, plenary discussions, working group meetings, and informal dinner conversations?
Perhaps the most striking lesson for me was the realization of how differently the problem of landmines in Tajikistan is viewed by local civil society / international organizations on the one hand, and national military authorities on the other. The reality is that segments of the Tajik armed forces continue to view anti-personnel landmines as having positive strategic functions. In this mindset, the removal of mines on the Afghan border actually constitutes a reduction in border security. Of course, representatives of humanitarian demining organizations (including my director) took pains to argue that this was emphatically not the case, and that in fact the opposite is true (more often than not, anti-personnel landmines end up killing and maiming a country’s own citizens rather than enemy combatants).
Why is it the case that these military officers expressed such skepticism about the goals of landmine removal and land release? Very likely it is largely to do with Tajikistan’s close ties with Russia (where many Tajik officers are educated and trained), which continues to insist on the military utility of antipersonnel mines and refuses to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. The influence of this type of “security” thinking is disturbing and should be taken seriously, particularly as Russia muses about retaking control of the Afghan border after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014. What this would mean for future mine action operations in Tajikistan – or even the prospect of more landmines going into the ground – is anybody’s guess.
Another noticeable theme to the talks, related to the point above, was the growing concern in Tajikistan about the security situation south of the border next year. When discussion turned to the impacts of international troops and aid organizations leaving Afghanistan, there was a noticeable level of anxiety and concern among Tajiks, civilian and military alike. Among the worst-case scenarios on everybody’s mind was the threat of a strengthened Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), possibly allied with the Taliban or other armed groups, enjoying free movement across the Central Asian region. Western military leaders and politicans may prefer to paint a rosier picture of Afghanistan’s future, but people living in the region are clearly more worried.
Finally, the conference participants were reminded that even though antipersonnel landmines may have no current humanitarian impact, that does not necessarily mean there will be none in the future. The NPA country director gave a powerful example of the minefields along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Like the Tajik-Afghan border, this was considered a low-impact minefield located in a military-controlled border zone with only a small risk of civilian harm. Nevertheless, over the course of several years demining operators such as NPA worked to remove these mines in order to fulfill Jordan’s obligations as a signatory to the Ottawa Convention. Although there was little demonstrable benefit at the time, this work has ultimately turned out to have saved potentially hundreds of civilian lives as massive flows of Syrian refugees crossed into Jordan since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. This tale serves as a reminder that even so-called “low risk” minefields can become much more hazardous under future circumstances, and the sooner they are removed the better.
That’s it for this week’s post. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.