Ensuring safe travel on a risky route through rugged Tajikistan
Ensuring safety on a risky route through rugged Tajikistan
Tajikistan, a mountainous and landlocked former Soviet republic in Central Asia, lies off the beaten path for most Western travellers. The country’s stunning landmarks and scenery have great tourist potential, with challenges and unique cultural experiences being easy to find (and difficult to avoid). It is also a major transit point for the smuggling of illegal drugs from Afghanistan, with drug trafficking being the major source of illicit income in the country.
I was recently tasked to spend a few weeks there supporting a client with a very specific need. Our mission was to reconnoiter multiple locations and itineraries country-wide as part of pre-protection physical security assessment and build a protective detail concept. My itinerary was challenging, ranging from the relative comfort afforded by the capital Dushanbe to the remote Pamir region and volatile southern areas bordering Afghanistan. This is where organized criminal groups linked to the illegal drug trade are most active, resulting in regular shoot-outs between border guards and drug smugglers.
The itinerary, which took me through Dushanbe, central Kurgan-Tyube and Kulob, the northern Khujand, southern Pyanj, and the Gorno-Badakhshan area in the Pamir mountains, was a distance equivalent to that between Moscow and New York (around 7,000 KM).
Some of the main challenges we encountered included poor infrastructure, low driving standards and mountainous terrain. Landslides and flooding in the spring and avalanches in the winter often block major roads. The areas bordering Afghanistan and Uzbekistan are partially mined and I therefore knew not to venture off the main road in certain locations.
The volatile areas bordering Afghanistan and the Gorno-Badakhshan in the Pamirs are special jurisdictions and require a government permit to visit, which meant some bureaucracy and queues for my team to ensure safety was a priority – both for my team and for potential protection services – when we hit the ground in these areas, given the security threats. In July 2018, a terrorist cell inspired by Islamic State 2018 killed four Western cyclists in Khatlon region. This was the first terrorist attack against foreigners in Tajikistan since 2001, and it underscores the increasing threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in the country, due to radicalization and the increasing likelihood that fighters will return to Tajikistan from territory lost by IS in Syria and Iraq.
We have strong local support capabilities in Dushanbe, but nevertheless, it took a great effort to research the geography and local standards in-depth to ensure the best security approach and compliance with the local conditions. This included using a robust 4x4 vehicle to travel on poor-quality or non-existent roads once out of Dushanbe. Our team planned well, and arranged to have emergency contacts in place, vehicle backups and liaison with the local setup on the ground.
We also took bulletproof vests for the Afghan border trips which thankfully were not needed. We were glad we took the precaution regardless. We observed a few military patrols along the border line and further in the Pamirs, yet most of these areas are not adequately secured. The security risks stemming from the drug smugglers’ use of firearms and an occasional spilling over of the conflict between the Afghani forces and the Taliban are high.
The most challenging drive was the final section through the Pamirs to Gorno-Badakhshan. This journey of just over 500km can take between 12 and 17 hours (it took us the latter since we were doing stops for reconnaissance and assessment) due to the route’s extremely poor conditions. Most of the drive– once approaching the Pamirs – runs through highly mountainous terrain, and certain segments are extremely dangerous. I recall a few moments when we were crawling between a rocky gorge on one side, and the raging Panj river on the other. We wondered whether this scenery – while beautiful – would be the last thing we would see. But ultimately, everything turned out well, and all we had to worry about was repeating the whole thing on the drive back.
The engagement was a successful mission for our client in its thorough security assessment of threats and requirements for effective and secure protection service delivery. It was also a very good experience for my team, as it provided a unique chance to broaden our regional expertise, coverage and capability to support our clients in this challenging part of the world.