Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Analysis, By Sultanbek Aksakolov (11/29/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Link: http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4335

This was the third of a series of bridges built by the AKDN across the Panj River to connect the rural, mountainous, isolated and impoverished communities living along the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Following the Great Game in the Pamirs and the 1895 agreement between the Czarist Russian Empire on the one hand and Afghanistan and the British Empire on the other hand, the area was politically divided along this river.

The division of the Pamiris resulted in the loss centuries’ of the economic, social and cultural connections between the communities living on both sides of the river. With the establishment of the Soviet government in the present territory of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, the border along the Panj River was sealed. In the Soviet period, a substantial rise of living standards took place in the GBAO, as it was connected to other parts of Soviet Central Asia via the Osh-Khorog, and Dushanbe-Khorog automobile routes and frequent air flights from bordering district of Ishkashim, Rushan, Shugnan, Rushan, Vanj and Darwaz, as well as the provision of free and universal education, and an improved health care system.

Yet by contrast, the living conditions in the Afghan parts of the same districts worsened, especially with Afghanistan plunging into a quarter of a century of civil war. Traveling via automobile routes from Dushanbe to Khorog along the Panj River in the Soviet period, visitors would notice the sharp contrast in development of society and economy in the Soviet and Afghan parts of Badakhshan.

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not only result in the disappearance of state-subsidized funds for the improvement of living standards, but in the weakening of border control with Afghanistan where internal armed conflicts gave rise to opium production and trafficking. With the outbreak of civil war in post-Soviet Tajikistan, the border along the Panj River become a crossing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Afghanistan. In its turn, the armed conflict between the United Tajik opposition, the Tajik government and Russian peacekeeping border troops, and the flow of opium from Afghanistan to Tajikistan brought life to the brink of despair and chaos, especially in the border areas of the GBAO among other areas of Tajikistan. Fortunately, with the involvement of international and regional agencies including the United Nations, neighboring countries and Russia, peace and stability were gradually restored in Tajikistan.

The Aga Khan Foundation agency of AKDN was among the most active international NGOs to provide assistance and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the GBAO. Following the humanitarian assistance provided, the AKDN initiated several other projects to foster social and economic development, promote civil society first in the GBAO, then in the Rasht Valley and the Kulyab regions of Tajikistan. The planned series of bridges across the Panj river are also part of the AKDN developmental initiative conducted in collaboration with the governments of Tajikistan and Afghanistan to facilitate commercial and cultural ties among the remote communities on each side of the Panj. Bridges from Tajikistan to Afghanistan via Panj also provide the opportunity for other neighboring countries like China and Pakistan to boost their trade in the region. It is thus hoped that the Panj River will leave its earlier status as a dividing river and return into its traditional role as a linking point for the mountainous communities.