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21 May 2014 -- Khorog, Tajikistan

Given the clarity of hindsight, the conflict in Khorog was predictable, even inevitable. The intensity and sudden escalation, however, was unexpected. Even more unexpected was how quickly the conflict de-escalated and agreements were made among civil society leaders and the government. Why did this happen? Why did this conflict not turn into a long drawn out civil insurrection and insurgency? The informal organizations provided both the buffer and the conduit for communication with the Tajik state administration for those living in Khorog.

The day the conflict occurred, I had just crossed the border into Afghanistan to spend some time with local religious leaders. It was a beautiful late spring day, and the air was just warming from a cold winter riddled with days that were below zero. On this day, steam rose from the patches of cement and puddles along the muddy dirt road to the border crossing into Afghanistan from Tajikistan. The scent of the early morning rain filled the air. We were on our way to Shughnan, Afghanistan for a two-week research trip. It is this day that a conflict erupted between residents of Khorog and Tajik security forces. It was just as we entered the border crossing that our phones started ringing.

As we approach the checkpoint, the Tajik Customs Officers recognize members of the team and jokingly accuse us of being involved in shifty business. As they check our documents, one of the Customs Officers says that my Tajik visa has expired and if I go into Afghanistan I will risk being unable to return to Tajikistan. He asks me for a thousand dollars to ensure my safe return. I point out that the visa has another two months on it even though the recent policy for these types of visas is one month. We go back and forth until he concedes that the visa is indeed legitimate and lets me through. Saddled with our backpacks and gear, we amble across a bridge that divides a river steeped in the history of outside intervention and interference. The bridge from Tajikistan to Afghanistan spans the river Panj. The Aga Khan Foundation funded the construction of the bridge at a cost of USD 400,000 in 2002. (2) Soon after that the EU, Japan, and the US funded the building of the infrastructure and the training of the personnel. Many development projects carve up invisible lines of foreign influence among the international community, and the development of this border crossing was no exception.

Cracks and patches of rust weave their way along the newly laid metal roadway on the bridge. According to an Afghan Border Commander, the metal to build the bridge was purchased at a very low rate from China and is not rated for the cold and harsh climate in the region. According to another interviewee many development projects in the region use cheap building materials bought for low prices. The money saved from buying sub-standard supplies is siphoned off the top and finds its way into the pockets of development workers and the networks of people who control the funding for the projects. As one Border Guard pointed out, if the EU and US really want the border checkpoints to be respected, then why would they allow the infrastructure to be built with Chinese concrete that begins crumbling after the first year and walls that leak after six months?

On the Afghan side of the border, a small, beat-up, brown two-door sedan sent by the brother of the border commander picks us up. The driver brings us to the center of the district of Shughnan. The dirt road to our first meeting overlooks the Panj River that divides the Tajik from the Afghan side of Badakhshan. The state still functions on several levels, as indigenous political and social alliances coexist alongside authoritarian state institutions as well as the many programs implemented by foreign nations that have sought to mold the country in their own image. The region had been divided by the river almost a century before, when the colonial period gave way to the formation of a Soviet satellite in today's Tajikistan

During the formation of the broader Soviet Union, the party leaders in Moscow separated centers of power from peripheries across the entire USSR. In Gorno-Badakhshan, as the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was forming, the party leaders separated the locally powerful from their spheres of influence. This included those in the district of Shughnan and the Wakhan Corridor. They split them into administrative units based on sub-ethnic group names. Many of the administrative designations, such as Roshan, Vanj, and Ishkashim, are still being used today. In Ishkashim, which was known as Ghoron prior to Soviet rule, the Soviets concentrated power within the Persian-speaking population and marginalized the Wakhi-speaking people who had been the dominant group in that area. Moscow installed the local administration in Ishkashim, which was home to the minority group. (3) These narratives of difference and true power centers are an ongoing topic of debate in the region. (4)

On the Afghan side of the border, there were conflicts for rule as well. Afghan shahs, pirs, and mirs fought for control while the Russians concentrated their information operation efforts along the border to draw in the Afghans from Badakhshan to the Soviet Union. This came to a head in 1925 during the Shughnan Rebellion when the citizens of Shughnan wrote a letter pleading with the Soviet Union to allow them to secede from Afghanistan. They wrote that the oppression and exploitation of the Isma'ilis was unbearable and that they wanted to be part of the Soviet system, which would recognize them and support them. They assumed, incorrectly, that the newly established Soviet Union would protect their rights as religious minorities. It was in 1937 that the purging of the pirs (religious leaders) in Tajikistan started. The Soviet Union believed that all of the pirs were spies for the British. They rounded many of them up, imprisoned them, and poisoned them in the prison. Some of them escaped to the Afghan side. Shah Langar still lives in Qozideh, a village in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. (5) It was one of these pirs that we were just sitting down to lunch with when our phones started ringing again. The pir had traveled two hours to meet with us in Shughnan, Afghanistan.

It is 21 May 2014, the day of a violent conflict between security forces and local leaders in Khorog, but we do not know this yet. The friend says over the phone that Tajik security forces shot three local leaders. One of them has escaped but the other two (one dead) have been dragged into police headquarters. A few hours later, the police release the body of Sobir, the deputy local leader and Farayd, the wounded leader. In reaction to the shooting and the refusal to release Sobir's body, the locals set fire to the Police Headquarters. They then set the Prosecutor's office and the Courthouse on fire. Our friend tells us that the Tajiks plan to close the border immediately and we have to get to the other side before we are stuck in Afghanistan for an unknown period of time. Jumping into a car provided by a local leader the team arrives at the border and runs to the border crossing. The Afghans allow passage across the bridge back into Tajikistan.

When we arrive many non-local Tajik border guards have been sent to reinforce the border crossing point. The border is about to close due to the conflict. These border guards are non-Pamiris and are viewed as the embodiment of the authoritarian reach the locals abhor. Many expressed to me that these non-Pamiri security forces demand goods for free, harass the local women, run brothels, and dislike Pamiris, often making disparaging remarks. The fact that the border is overrun now with these outside forces is a sign of the seriousness of the intervention our team is about to encounter in Khorog.

One of the border guards points his AK-47 at my chest with his finger on the trigger, staring directly in my eyes and smiling. I ask him to point his gun elsewhere; he acts like he does not understand. I ask a second time, in a heavier non-local dialect, for him to move his barrel. He starts laughing and finally points the Kalashnikov away from my chest and at the ground.

Upon entering Khorog, a dense crowd blocks the street. Burning buildings spread down the main thoroughfare and destroyed cars litter the front of the police headquarters. It is unclear what will happen, how chaotic things might become. Many of the local leaders have gathered, some trying to decide what the next steps should be while others meet with my interpreter and his associated group. Young people begin gathering in front of the main square outside the government administration offices in a large peaceful protest. Eleven tents are spread across the square at the end of the first day of protest, each representing one of the 17 or 18 mahallas (neighborhoods) in Khorog. The other mahallas do not engage in the protest because they are more ideologically aligned with the government of Tajikistan. Some want to purge the area of the local leaders in support of the Tajik government's intervention, while others work for the government and risk losing their jobs if they protest.

For twelve days the male protesters camp out in the main square. Women are not allowed. During the conflict in 2012, some women fought on the side of the resistance and the government of Tajikistan said that the Pamiris were cowards for sending their women to fight the battles for them. The locals did not want to be accused of putting the women in danger again or of being too cowardly to fight.

The Minister of Defense, two other officials, and the head of the GKNB flew in on military helicopters from Dushanbe, the capital, to negotiate a settlement with the local leaders. The question on everybody's mind is whether the Tajik military will bomb Khorog, attack it from the hillsides with snipers--Khorog sits in the middle of tall mountains on all sides--or take other military action. During this time, Farayd dies suddenly in a hospital. Many suspect he has been poisoned because he had been recovering well prior to his death. After Farayd's death, Manawar, the third leader who had been shot in the chest, is transferred secretly to a hospital in Moscow in order to protect him and gain access to better medical treatment.

After a week of negotiations, the most powerful local leader tells the protesters to disperse and that an agreement between the government and the local civil society leaders has been reached. In reality, an agreement had not been reached. The evening after the protesters left the square, some of the leaders said that the government had threatened that if the crowd did not disperse immediately, the snipers in the hills would shoot into the crowd of tents in the main square and kill the young men, much like the government massacre of hundreds of protesters in 2005 in Andijon, Uzbekistan. Negotiations continued after the protesters returned to their homes. This went on for a number of weeks, then months, with the outcome of the talks never publicly shared and an agreement never reached.

The negotiations between local civil society leaders and government officials both amplified the unresolved issues from the conflict of 2012 and provided a means to quiet the local discontent and allow for discussions between local leaders and the Tajik government. It is alleged that the Tajik security services still hold a black list of those locals who were involved in the fighting in the 2012 and 2014 conflicts. The government still wants to penalize those involved in either resisting the government or destroying government property. Meanwhile, the locals want fewer state security forces and greater local participation in the state security apparatus and in governmental bodies. Economic interests play an important and often unspoken role in these unresolved conflicts. Local leaders control the majority of trade that travels through the region, licit and illicit. The goal of the government is to increase control over the economy in order to increase economic gains through asserting authority over the local leaders, while the goal of the local leaders and networks is the exact opposite. Both groups claim publicly that they desire the same goals, namely, security and stability in the region. But they have very different visions of how to get there. It is through the informal organizations that these disagreements are mediated and without which the conflict would surely worsen. The following sections provide an overview of the methodology used for this research and conceptualize informal organizations and their relationship to the state and civil society in the context of Tajik/Afghan Badakhshan.


The fieldwork for this research spanned six years along both sides of the Tajik/Afghan border in Badakhshan and included participant-observation, interviews with informal leaders, state officials, civil society leaders, and activists, as well as focus group discussions. While living in Badakhshan, I spent extended periods with local leaders of civil society organizations and informal organizations, including educational, religious, and neighborhood community groups. This also included officials, such as border commanders, district and provincial governors, border guards and commanders, and customs officers.

Studying kinship networks, informal organizations, civil society, and their relationship to each other and the state offers one way to uncover the impact informal organizations have on civil society and the state. I used ethnographic methods, participant-observation, and unstructured interviews with officials, local stakeholders, illicit traders, and local, domestic, and international leaders. The unstructured interviews included a broad range of topics including leadership and leadership style, local organizations, Tajik Mahallas (neighborhoods), Afghan Shura (councils), civil society, legal and illegal trade, government accountability, security, economic development, women's rights, youth, opium, heroin, and addiction.

Informal Organizations and the State

The state is what those living within a particular territory make of it. This includes boundaries of nations within states' territories; state and non-state institutions and organizations; kinship networks, clans, sub-ethnic groups; and other non-state networks and groups. Indeed, that is quite a list, but given the competing perceptions of the state among these groups, each group represents a separate but equal tile in the mosaic that makes up the idea of the state. In fact, in most places different interpretations of the state co-exist both inter- and intra-territorially.

In Tajikistan and Afghanistan this is particularly true. In fact, unwritten rules and customary constraints make up the majority of non-state institutional practices and locally accepted, legitimate interactions at the border. This makes these non-state institutions the more legitimate institutions even though they are not recognized by the state, and in some cases the state even regards them as illegal. Since the daily practices of these institutions make up the majority of the state-making process, it is important to study these practices as they function within and throughout the state.

In both Tajik Gorno-Badakhshan and Afghan Badakhshan civil society organizations (CSOs) function as intermediaries to the state as do kinship networks. In addition to familial networks and CSOs, there is also this layer in-between: the informal organizations. The context in which the informal organizations interact with the state or kinship networks changes their role and influence.

Organization has a number of meanings in the context of this analysis. One meaning encompasses civil society groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and informal organizations (non-state sanctioned). The other usage refers to the overarching system in which people organize themselves socially on a daily basis--that is, their social organization. These two forms of societal organization work synergistically, forming the basis for how people interact with the state and their kin. The informal organizations embed themselves within civil society as well as throughout the overarching social organization. (6)

Benedict Anderson's seminal work on states as "Imagined Communities" is a gateway into the concept of the state as a construct. (7) While he focuses more on the study of nationalism and its ability to take hold, his thesis applies just as well to other forms of identity assertion that underpin the state-making process. The difference between nationalism and other forms of identity assertion within non-state institutional or organizational processes is that these local practices are inherently more fluid and more embedded, which renders them opaque and even unseen--particularly in the case of Badakhshan. The process of the lived (or fluid) state makes sense as an idea, but how does one study it? How do these daily processes of lived state practices rise to the surface of the analysis? One way to study them is through informal organizations and their relationship to the state, civil society, and kinship networks.

Informal organizations bridge civil society with services often not provided by the state. For example, in Gorno-Badakhshan local neighborhood organizations (Mahallas), religious organizations, and local leaders mediate local conflicts, provide support for struggling families, offer drug addiction treatment support, and supply neighborhood security. On the Afghan side of the border, informal organizations provide women an avenue for engaging with local issues through female shurra councils, while local religious organizations support local communities with food, healthcare, addiction treatment, and security. On both sides of the border these informal organizations are conduits for civil society to make change, resist mistreatment, and organize around particular issues. On the Tajik side of the border the informal organizations provide a buffer for civil society from the authoritarian arm of the state. On the Afghan side the informal organizations provide a buffer for civil society from the kinship and ethnic groups that control resources in northeastern Badakhshan.

Heathershaw and Cooley's recent book argues that authoritarian leaders in Central Asia loot the state and suppress the citizens with the help of the international community, which funds them and supports their administrations. (8) If their thesis is correct, then the role of informal organizations in providing support to those living within these oppressive countries is even more vital. Driscoll asserts that these same leaders engage in a game of negotiating corruption through bargaining and coalition forming. (9) The authoritarian dictators allow the warlords that cooperate with them to have a piece of the state pie and by doing so, control their behavior. The state pie, of course, is a myriad of corrupt practices including graft from international development projects, trafficking, and bribery. Driscoll's work highlights again why informal organizations are important for civil society to be able to mediate with the state and/or kinship networks. That said, engagement is perhaps less important than how informal organizations, due to their ability to buffer state or clan encroachment, contribute to stability and during conflicts provide a conduit for negotiating a settlement that would otherwise not exist.

Several related concepts that provide useful insights for analyzing the state as process have been well developed in scholarship on African countries. They include: (1) "Twilight institutions"; (2) "States at work" (3) and "The mediated state". (10) The authors examine different forms of state/non-state interaction as forms of the state as a process. These authors use cases from the continent of Africa and highlight the conceptual incongruities of western state-centric models to African states.

Lund argues that "just as ideas of state and icons of modernity may be drawn upon, opposite ideas of tradition, identity and locality may equally convey legitimacy to what are essentially emerging institutions." (11) Lund terms these "twilight institutions" in so far as they combine the assertion of the state by public authorities with the simultaneous opposition to the state through their non-state positions. It is this interplay, this tension between the idea of the state and the lived experience of the state through myriad entities, that reveals the epistemology of stateness.

Beirschenk and Olivier take this idea one step further. They argue that "the metaphor of states and public services as the construction sites of overlapping projects led by different actors refers to both the incompleteness of state-building processes and the heterogeneity and (always) improvised nature of statehood." (12) The state is a process not an entity, what I explain as the making and unmaking of the state through daily practices. (13)

In Menkhaus's article on the "mediated state," he focuses on treating "informal governance and security partners rather than rivals to be marginalized or tools to be manipulated as a form of 'indirect rule." (14) This partnership could be "either a temporary coping mechanism or a long-term alternative approach to reviving rule of law in failed states." Either way, partnering with existing local and informal institutions instead of trying to coopt, coerce, subvert, control, or collapse this process of mediation among entities provides a mechanism for the rule of law to implant in unlikely places. The potential for a territory to maintain or garner otherwise non-existent stability through locally based agreements that partner with the apparatus of the state provides a potential path to diminished conflict, which other top-down approaches fail to achieve.

Beirschenk and Olivier explain that "the processes of state formation in Africa were not completed once and for all with the establishment of the colonial states, with the achievement of the independence of these countries, or with the recent emergence of democratic regimes. If one considers, from a Weberian perspective, the institutionalization of (a monopoly of) violence, the local anchoring of central power and the self-limitation of the rulers qua codification of the law as the core of the development of the modern Western-type state, state-building processes are never-ending." (15) Indeed, they are never-ending, but the processes of state-formation differ widely depending on the context. Since the processes diverge based on location, partnerships, outside engagement, and institutionalization, adjustment is required for research, development, and, if necessary, security cooperation.

Similar to the African/Westphalian/Weberian bureaucratic state mismatch, analysis of Central Asian states often stretches the limits of existing statehood to fit western models. Admittedly, there are stark contrasts between the African and Central Asian cases as well. Central Asian states have their own unique form of stateness, comprising the legacies of the khans, the shahs, warlordism, Tsarism, the Soviet Union, and post-communism. An undercurrent of accepted, but non-state practices subsume aspects of the state. These practices (and processes) occur under the shadow of the authoritarian state structure, which asserts narratives continually in order to lock in the state as an entity. There exists a dialogue between the process of the informal state and the assertion of the formal state.

Institutions that function within the state and at the same time across states undergird daily life as well as norms of interaction in Badakhshan. These same institutions (and organizations) cooperate or resist state institutions and bureaucracies. These institutions and organizations, which some term local and others label as informal, include clans, sub-ethnic groups, neighborhoods, and religious organizations; they often take precedence over state-run institutions. (16) They provide a means for people to constrain their behavior and a road map for acceptable interactions. Also, the nations within the state are places of constant renegotiation along the boundaries of the accepted state. The actual state is a hybrid of the locally accepted norms of interaction and the formally stated rules asserted by the state institutions, local/informal institutions, and local organizations. These boundaries differ radically from the boundaries of state institutions themselves, which are the institutions that the international community sees as the state. The constant interplay between the two creates a state in flux.

Informal Organizations and Civil Society

In Badakhshan, the architecture, the poetry, and the music reflect the many layers of history embodied in the daily lives of the people. Pamiri houses merge Zoroastrian symbols with Shi'a Ismailism. People openly share their history, culture, and religion, and regularly say that it is a key unifying factor in the community. At the same time, there are divisions between neighboring areas, such as the districts of Shughnan and Ishkashim, Roshan and Bartang, and subdistricts such as Khorog and Roshtqala. Divisions also ripple through the daily lives of people between neighborhoods, streets, clans, and other sections of the city of Khorog itself. These self-imposed divisions are based on families, territory, language, history, and government connection. They simmer most days and sometimes boil over into violent clashes. The same is true on the Afghan side, but there are different types of rifts among groups, including territorial, linguistic, familial, and political. Even with these ongoing territorial and sub-ethnic rifts there is still a cohesive sense of community throughout most of the Ismaili areas in Afghan and Tajik Badakhshan. Ismailis band together to limit outside control and foreign influences in order to preserve the languages, culture, and religion as well as for their own security. But, within this overarching social group, sub-groups, such as family and kinship networks, still play a major role in peoples' access to jobs and resources--much like the civil society organizations and informal organizations in which these networks are embedded.

In Afghanistan a horizontal form of kinship networks operates throughout the state. In both cases informal organizations fill the vacuum, creating a boundary or buffer between the state and the civil society. This is the void that the informal organizations fill, sometimes constructively and other times destructively. The interactions that lead to both positive and negative state-local exchanges can be examined by studying the differences between these informal organizations and their relationship to civil society, the state, and the kinship networks.

In Tajikistan, the state controls civil society in the form of a dynastic vertical kinship network. This kinship network is under the control of President Emomali Rahmon, who rose to power rather unexpectedly after the bloody Tajik civil war (1992-1997). Over the past decade he has consolidated power within his family and slowly and effectively pushed other ethnic and territorial groups out of the circles of the ruling elite. Therefore, civil society offers a weak mechanism for civic participation. Other ways of partaking in state processes and/or asserting the needs of citizens become necessary. Informal organizations, while sometimes illegal, have become one way to do that in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan.

In Tajikistan the central administration attempts to control non-state authority throughout the country by either co-opting leadership through rents or killing rivals. In some ways this has worked, at least in the short term, in that the administration has been able to maintain stability in the country despite a failing economy, weak infrastructure, waning educational institutions, and ethnic tensions. The strategy of centralizing authority in Gorno-Badakhshan, however, may not advance the goal of stability as it marginally did in the other parts of the country, particularly the strategy of co-opting and/or killing the local leadership. At the southeastern border there are intermittent fights for control over local terrain and economic access between civil society leaders and the government. While the government has managed to remove or kill a number of the local leaders, in doing so it has only increased the authority of leaders within civil society, unified a once-divided province, and at the same time diminished its own capacity to govern.

Ongoing institutional processes and shifting relationships within these districts in AFG/TJK Badakhshan is often referred to in the literature as "state-formation." (17) What if a fluid, decentralized network of leaders and groups is what provides stability to the state? What if these continually shifting alliances and partnerships simply make up the state and within this confluence of networks, unwritten agreements, and processes exist the institutional constraints needed to stem chaos and anarchy? The woven networks of agreements and exchanges, moving in and out of the state-sanctioned rule of law and formal institutions, make up the structure of the functioning state. There is no state formation or weak state/failed state. States of all kinds are constantly in flux. Agreements among networks define the ability of institutions to constrain behavior by groups that are considered negative. Disruption of these processes also fosters instability because this fluid manifestation of the state, while perhaps not a state in the western image, is the state in this context and has been so for generations.

In Khorog, Tajikistan, the daily practices of the state are asserted on many levels at once: through formal and information institutions, local organizations, kinship networks, the international community, trafficking networks, and terrorist groups. The government of Tajikistan has written legislation for formalizing and taking control of most local institutions, including Mahallas, neighborhood organizations, NGOs, and all other forms of civil society organizations, as a means of expanding the authoritarian reach and economic control of the state. The killing of local leaders and the ongoing increases in demands of rents from the local economy are just steps in this process of increased state control. The international community supports the goal of state administration and is working hard to formalize institutions of the state through development projects. The dual projects of the Tajik administration and the international community have put pressure locally on the community and marginalized local leaders, weakening the neighborhood institutions, and increasing insecurity. Local neighborhood organizations and institutions provide the main buffer from state oppression on the Tajik side and from clan- and religious-based exploitation on the Afghan side. Essentially, they represent the main restraints on either power broker.

The very act of imposing outside versions of the state through processes of institutional development perverts the tenuous local arrangements among networks that provide stability for local civil society. This incongruence between development projects, state interference, and local informal institutions allows for the formation of weak points in the system, which then can be exploited by outside groups (such as ISIS or the Taliban) instigating instability as a means to increase influence. The Taliban shadow governments have benefited from the destabilizing effects of the foreign imposition of systems that weaken established non-state institutional processes.

Each district, and often each village, has its own unique system of local governance. The partnerships that make up the buffers to outside oppression are context-based. The only pattern that emerges is that people partner with each other in incongruous ways and, in some ways, the more unlikely the partnership, the more successful the outcome. Some examples include a drug lord helping a foreigner to build schools; an Isma'ili Shah and a local youth leader working with the Mujahideen on drug treatment programs in the 1990s, which has now morphed into knowing where the Taliban hotspots are and keeping an area safe; a local Tajik leader working with the GKNB (formerly the KGB) on keeping the border secure; and local Tajik/Pamiri gemstone smugglers working with local leaders to provide information about the Taliban-related networks on the Afghan side. Other relationships described in the following ethnographic vignettes are relevant as well.

For example, a local leader in Shughnan District, Afghanistan and his brother, the border commander, both serve in key leadership roles along the border. The border commander works closely with several local leaders and drug lords on the Tajik side of the border. They also partner with the Aga Khan Foundation and their associated programs to both safely implement the development projects and also to provide guidance for outsiders coming to work in the district. Locals look to them for mediation in local disputes and Shura (local councils) leaders partner with them on matters of security and governance. The men serve as intermediaries for cross-border development, humanitarian exchange, trade, and information sharing on key security issues; undoubtedly, the district would be less stable without their presence.

Different districts in Afghanistan highlight the context-dependent nature of these hybrid relationships and processes. The diversity of the relationships and variations in types of cooperation provides avenues for engagement. Some relationships are multifaceted and provide places for hybrid cooperation between customary agreements and state institutions such as Shuras. Shuras provide a conduit for raising local grievances to the level of the district, where they then can be addressed by INGOs, IGOs, NGOs, or even the state. Each Shura (which only operate in Parwan District and Badakhshan) elects its own leaders. In some areas, like in Shughnan, there are both female and male Shuras. These councils and their leaders partner with the district governors, the local religious leaders, the informal leaders, healthcare and family welfare organizations, development programs, and families. Each village has a Shura and each village cluster, which can be 3-5 villages, has a village cluster Shura. The Shuras from the village clusters all meet to solve larger issues that impact the entire district.

Other partnerships between state and non-state leaders are common. One such partnership I observed and participated in was between the Afghan Minister of the Environment, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Wakhan-Pamir Organization. In the Wakhan, the Wildlife Conservation Society provided training for twenty-one Afghan Rangers and partnered with a locally formed organization, the Wakhan-Pamir Organization. After partnering for a number of years, the Minister of the Environment visited the Wakhan Corridor in 2013 while I was there and designated the area a wildlife preserve, providing protection for the endangered snow leopards and other animals and plants.

The networks of cooperation also occur among non-state security groups and state security forces. Partnerships develop based on necessity and fear--at least for the most part. They are a bit like a river, finding the path of least resistance. Some are based on old relationships from the Afghan-Soviet War, some based on how empowered the state security forces are either because they are strong in those areas, they have more international support, or they have a strong commander.

In the Northeastern-most parts of the province of Badakhshan, in the districts of Ishkashem and the Wakhan Corridor, local leaders, NGOs, and the sparse security forces deployed in the region often work in concert. This includes cooperating in illicit and legally sanctioned trade. Militias do not exist as they do in other parts of Afghanistan. But, local leaders provide a safety net to their community in the form of protection by position. They have strong clans, family wealth, and allied partnerships with other leaders in the province, NGOs, and even international donors and expat workers. They use their position and access to outside wealth to provide a buffer from outsiders who might behave in a predatory way towards the community.

Cooperation among local powerbrokers, locally elected leaders, NGOs or INGOs, and some government officials that has focused on a common purpose, such as for the completion of successful development projects or information-sharing, has broken much needed ground, paving the way for future partnerships. Each case comes about organically, and often because local elites in key positions supported the program, project, or partnership. Sometimes, an area of successful cooperation that has led to a number of positive gains for local stability is overturned by one new appointment, change in local leadership, or funding stream. As a result, the mechanisms for increasing state stability through these forms of hybrid arrangements are, for the most part, fragile and tenuous.

Not all of these partnerships are productive. For example, in Shughnan some of these partnerships have a more pernicious nature. Those who hold power can be divided into two main categories: (1) Whom the state appoints to positions of authority, most notably district governor, and (2) the strength of the shadow government, which is part and parcel of the strength and organization of local militias and their coordination with state forces.

In other districts, local elites provide the counterbalance to the Taliban shadow governments. Some of these local elites hold official positions while others are respected leaders in other ways. In some districts, such as Zebok and Warduj, which in the past were controlled by benevolent drug lords or former mujahideen commanders, there has been a more sinister and destabilizing turn in the last couple of years. These local commanders, who in the past cooperated with locals for the most part, have shifted to more hardline, anti-government positions, sometimes allying with the Taliban or even ISIS. All of these partnerships function on multiple levels and are steeped in a legacy of colonial fingerprints, local practices, post-communist state-formation, and authoritarian state governance.


The fieldwork for this study uncovered many more questions than it provided answers. For example, who is the Deputy Governor, how did the Afghan government choose him, and how does he work with the local Shura Council leaders? What is their relationship to civil society? Also, what is the relationship between the religious Pir and the local leader? What kind of influence does the Pir have? Does he represent the Ismaili religion, Sufism, or a broader aspect of religious life? What about the border commander? What is his relationship to the local leaders on the Tajik side of the border, the Afghan central authority in Kabul that appointed him, the illicit trade networks in the region which span Taliban-related groups and others? What is the relationship of these leaders and groups to the informal organizations that often mediate between the state and civil society? What role do kinship networks play in these various networks?

The same is true on the Tajik side of the border. Who are the local leaders who were killed? What network does my interpreter belong to and how does his informal network mediate between civil society and the state? What is the state? What role does it play and how does it organize itself around and among the civil society, kinship networks, and informal organizations and vice versa? These are some of the many questions raised rather than answered by this research.

When they seek to control the economy or social fabric of everyday life, local leaders and clan-based networks can be ruinous to civil society. They also can lead to displacement, forced migration, and worse. That said, currently these local groups and their networks are part and parcel of the fabric of everyday existence, and these partnerships actually create a system that constrains chaos. Through institutionalization of these everyday agreements, state stability is woven into unwritten rules and institutional constraints.

In Tajikistan, civil society is mainly organized under the control of the state, within the current President Rahmon's larger family network. Therefore, civil society is unable to give a voice to the voiceless and other means become necessary. In Afghanistan more horizontal forms of kinship networks operate throughout the state. In both cases informal organizations fill the vacuum, creating a boundary or buffer between the state and the civil society. This is the void that the informal organizations fill, sometimes constructively and other times destructively.

With insurgent group strongholds increasing in Afghan Badakhshan, it is unclear how this increased number of hotspots will interact with the attacks by the Tajik government. There is increased resistance to these attacks by the local community on the Tajik side. On the Afghan side, a recent series of bombings of insurgents by U.S. and Afghan forces in Warduj and a struggle for control in Nusai will change the dynamics in this border region. The local leaders and warlords are both a positive and a negative influence on the local community but since state security is not only weak but endemically corrupt, many people find justice and security through these informal systems, which empower some of the more nefarious actors in some districts.

Other factors, such as increasing influence by international forces including China and Russia, impact this dynamic as well. China is rumored to be building a new base in the remote Little Pamir section of the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. The area has outside influences that are dividing the community into six main groups. These groups are each sympathetic to different outsiders--namely, the Russians, the Chinese, the Tajik government, the Aga Khan, the West, and ISIS/ETIM. Some of the members of these groups belong to more than one group.

China supplied weapons to the security forces that shot the local leaders in Khorog in 2014. China also has a strong foothold in the local economy due to the immense flows of goods coming across the nearby border with China. They also have economic influence among various influential business and other leaders in the community, which has an impact on cross-border trade, legal and illegal, which is the life-blood of this remote area.

Russia plays an important role in this border region and has a long history of intervention and influence in Gorno-Badakhshan and Badakhshan. Russia has a network of assets both within the local leadership and within the security forces. Local powerbrokers have various international partnerships. An uptick in this partnership is occurring right now. There has also been an increase in Russian-Tajik security cooperation and Russian troop numbers in the country.

The combination of these outside forces influencing local dynamics and the increased assertion of state authority over the locals, either alone or with the help of international actors, will cause locals to assert local identity and informal arrangements in order to undermine outside interference. The combination of increased assertion of authority by the state leads to decreased acceptance of state institutions, which destabilizes the state. Accepting the view of the state as a complex of formal and unofficial and informal and unwritten agreements and forms of cooperation allows for imagining that these networks constitute the state. Therefore, if they are destroyed or severely disrupted, one could assume the stability of the region would be at risk and open to exploitation.

The role informal organizations play in governance has both negative and positive consequences, but as a whole they constrain a state in constant formation. As Charles Tilly famously said, democracy is in a constant state of flux vacillating between "democratization and de-democratization." This is true for other forms of governance as is the case in Tajik/Afghan Badakhshan. The state makes and unmakes itself on a daily basis through its continual interaction with the lived institutional arrangements asserted by nations within the state and trans-boundary non-state institutions. Informal organizations provide the glue that allows a fluid state to remain intact.


(1) The views expressed in this analysis are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


(3) See also Atkin, 1992. This was similar to what occurred in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other parts of Central Asia. The Soviets often took a less dominant group and created the nation--including the national language, mythology, and history of the people with the goal of creating homogeneity among the citizens and decreasing ties to ethnicity and culture. This history is well-cited in the scholarly literature (Golden, Bregel, Deweese, et al).

(4) Levi-Sanchez, 2016

(5) Iloliev, 2013; Interviews with Shah Langar in 2011, 2013, and 2014 and Shah Isma'il in 2013.

(6) "Formal and informal local organizations differ from formal and informal institutions (Helmke and Levitsky, 2004: 724-7; Collins, 2004: 231). Helmke and Levitsky define informal institutions as 'enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels' whereas formal ones are 'enforced through channels widely accepted as official'(2004: 726). Moreover, informal institutions operate within a given set of accepted norms, customs, and/or rules including any group or collective behavior such as hospitality, family life, and extrajudicial practices (Barth, 1969: 120). Organizations are structured differently. Collins (2004) says that, 'Informal organizations are social (non-state-created) groups that have a corporate character; specific informal unwritten agreements shape individuals' expectations and behavior within the group.' Essentially, organizations are the groups operating around a set of written or unwritten constraints. Organizations sustain themselves around a set of common goals, beliefs, or other self/group identified categories, traits, or features. Informal/local organizations mediate through, and are constrained by, the unwritten agreements, customary norms of the informal institutions. There are other forms of informal groups of groups or "umbrella" groups, which transcend the boundaries of ethnic, sub-ethnic groups and networks on each side of the border as well as spanning the border. Some of these networks engage in drug, weapons, human, and gemstone trafficking, medical and agricultural exchanges, and other forms of legal and illegal trade. These 'networks of cooperation' transcend formal institutions the state works to maintain" (Levi-Sanchez, 2017). See also: North, 1990: 4; Helmke and Levitsky, 2004: 726; see also Kubik, Loung, 2002; Collins; 2004.

(7) Benedict Anderson. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso

(8) Cooley, A. and Heathersaw, J. (2017) Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia Yale University Press.

(9) Driscoll, J. (2015) Warlords and Coalition Politics in Post-Soviet States Cambridge University Press

(10) Lund, C. (2006). "Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics in Africa" Development and Change 37(4), 685-705; Bierschenk, T., Olivier de Sardan, J.. "Studying the Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. An Introduction to States at Work." Bierschenk, T., Olivier de Sardan, J. (Eds). (2014). States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. Leiden, Brill; Menkhaus, K., (2008). "The Rise of a Mediated State in Northern Kenya: The Wajir Story and Its Implications For State-building." Afrika Focus, 21(2), 23-38.

(11) Lund, C. (2006). "Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics in Africa" Development and Change 37(4), 691

(12) Bierschenk, T., Olivier de Sardan, J. (Eds). (2014). States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies.

(13) Bierschenk, T., Olivier de Sardan, J. (Eds). (2014). States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies.

(14) Menkhaus, K., (2008). "The Rise of a Mediated State in Northern Kenya: The Wajir Story and Its Implications For State-building." Afrika Focus, 21(2), 23-38.

(15) Bierschenk, T., Olivier de Sardan, J. (Eds). (2014). States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies.

(16) North noted that informal institutions "defy, for the most part, neat specification, and it is extremely difficult to develop unambiguous tests of their significance, they are important... formal rules in even the most developed economy, make up a small (although very important) part of the sum of constraints that shape choices; a moment's reflection should suggest to us the pervasiveness of informal constraints" (1990: 36-7). (Hughes and Gwendolyn, 2002: 29; Collins, 2004; Schatz, 2004; Guistiozzi, 2009, 2011; Braithwaite, 2011).

(17) This idea of state formation still permeates development projects as a whole. As Nils Gilman points out, while "modernization theory" might be dead, it has not been purged from most development programs, economic and programmatic policy, and decision-making about how to allocate funding. He says that most development occurs with the basic assumption that if certain parts of a state are developed: (1) the state will become more stable and (2) the state will become more economically prosperous. This includes the development of civil society and local governance by the state.


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Suzanne Levi-Sanchez (1)

Suzanne Levi-Sanchez is an experienced educator, field researcher, and analyst with subject matter expertise in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, political identity, informal institutions, local leadership, borders, ethnographic methods, and gender. Background includes intensive research on Iranian culture and politics as well as six years on and off on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan studying how local leaders and organizations impact border and state stability as well as drug, human, weapons, and gemstone trafficking.
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Author:Levi-Sanchez, Suzanne
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Date:Mar 22, 2018

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