[Feature] Pamir – A meeting point of superpowers

The Pamirs – battleground at high altitude pastures and rangelands

By Zulfiqar Ali Khan

Pamir, famously known as the Bam-e Dunya, or the “roof of the world”, extends across China, Afghanistan, Kyrgyztan and Pakistan with its heart located in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region-GBAO, Tajikistan. It is a central mountain knot connected with Karakoram, Hindukush, Tian Shan and other great mountain ranges.

Pamir is derived from the Wakhi colloquial term “pamer” which reflects the specificity of the fertile high mountain pastures and was taken as a defining feature to describe natural grazing grounds of substantial extent (Ref. Hermann Kreutzmann). Arable land is the scarcest resource and most of the territory is barren rocky mountain terrain. The vast high plateaus of the Pamirs are characterised sparse vegetation due to minimal rainfall and are suitable only for animal husbandry. The sparsely populated mountain range hosts diverse ethnic groups including Kyrghyz, Wakhi, Shugnani, Rehne, Rushani, Tajik, Yazgulomi and others.

Murghab, a town founded in 1891 by the tsarist army as the political center

The geographers and ecologists have so far agreed to acknowledge seven major Pamirs that make a spatial extent of 300 km each. Four of these are located in the Eastern Pamirs of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). This includes the Kargushi Pamir (the Pamir of the hare) also known as Kara Köl Pamir, Rang Köl (coloured lake) Pamir, Sariz Pamir (Pamir of the yellow trail) and Alichur Pamir. The two Afghan Pamirs – Pamir-e Kalan – Great Pamir (Chong Pamir) and Pamir-e Khurd-Little Pamir (Kichik Pamir) are located in the northeaster Afghan Badakhshan bordering with Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. Taghdumbash Pamir is located in Sarikol in the Tajik Autonomous County within the Uigur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. The Taghdumbash had been tributary to the Mir of Hunza who exercised control on these pastures until 1937. In addition to the seven extended Pamirs some smaller Pamirs such as Shimshal Pamir (Gilgit-Baltistan), Pamir-e Bugrumal (upper Gunt Valley, Gorno-Badakhshan), Mariang Pamir (Sarikol), Tagarma Pamir (Sarikol), and Little Kara Köl Pamir (Kizil Su) are also defined.

The areas falling in Pamir has been historically ruled by local Mirs paying tributes to Emirs of Afghanistan and Bukhara. The occupation of Khanates by Tsar Troops in the region sent fear to British that Russia could use Afghanistan as a staging post for the invasion of India. This led Anglo-Afghan wars to occupy the region in order to stop Russia from further advancement.

The former Wakhan principality, prey of 1895 boundary commission; the left bank of Panj River belongs to Afghanistan and right bank to Tajikistan.

The Emir of Afghanistan, in 1883, helped the British to access Wakhan, Shughnan and Roshan in fear of the Russian occupation as by the second half of the 19th century Russia had seized most of Central Asia, including the East Pamir. Historically, the British had described the Pamirs (Badakhshan) as “pawns on a chessboard” and “pivot of Asia” and its spies-cum-explorers remained active in the region to guard the imperial interests. In order to tight its grip around USSR, British also occupied the Hunza borders in 1892.

At the end of the 19th century, the region was used as a battle ground between the clashing superpowers- USSR and Britain as part of the “Great Game”. The joint British and Russian Pamir Boundary Commission in 1895 established local borders along the Panj River, to avoid clashes, by dividing the historical settlements and neglecting the local livelihood and regional interests. Great Game ended without any major military encounter through a mutually benefiting Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 but the border delineations divided the ethnic territories between two countries. The narrow 300km-long and only 15-75 km wide strip of Wakhan (falls in Afghan Badakshan) served the buffer zone to guard the interests of both parties within their defined territories.

International donors supporting in road infrastructure development in Afghan Badakhshan. Contacts between valleys are limited and take weeks to reach Faizabad, the capital city.

The Pamir region (areas under USSR occupation during the 1895 agreement) was renamed as Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and placed under the jurisdiction of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1925, with Khorog as the administrative centre. Prior to this it had been de jure under the Emirate of Boukhara but – since the end of the 19th century – de facto under direct Russian rule. These events coupled with other regional rivalries favoured political and religious persecution of the local inhabitants which led widespread migration of local people to surrounding mountain ranges.

Along with its capital city of Khorog in the Shughnan, Gorno-Badakhshan now consists of the following seven districts (rayons): Darwaz (Kala-I Kumb), Vanj, Rushan, Shughnan, Ishkashim, Roshtkala and Murghab. The Ishkashim and Langar bridges were built to facilitate the Soviet invasion and occupation in Afghanistan (1979-89) but again closed down.

The Ishkashim bridge reconstructed by AKDN between Afghan and Tajik Ishkashims facilitate interactions among people belonging to the same ethnic groups.

It was just recently, that a series of three bridges were constructed on Panj River to link the Tajik and Afghan Badakhshan. The first of these bridges, connecting Tem on the Tajik side with Demogan on the Afghan side, (inaugurated in November, 2002), followed by the Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge at Darwaz (July, 2004) and the Ishkashim bridge between Ishkashims of both sides (October, 2006).

The collapse of USSR in 1991 has also collapsed the highly centralised and externally subsidised economy in Pamir region which is now in transformation towards subsistence farming. The infrastructure and living condition of the people in Tajik Pamir is however far better than that of the Pamiri people living under the denomination of the war-hit Afghanistan. The people of the Chinese Pamir are presently witnessing the exogenously stimulated development under a command economy from where the Tajik Pamiri people reverted back after decades of experimentation.

Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan: Trade practically unknown under Soviet rule, is increasing day by day.

During the 20th century, the significance of the Pamir region was further magnified by the Chinese revolution in 1949, the Afghan War (1979-1989), the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the aftermath of the 9/11. Like the Great Game of the 19th century, in which the geopolitical interests of the British Empire and Russia clashed, today’s struggle between Russia, China and the West is also regarded as a New Great Game for supremacy and resource control in the peripheries of Central Asia. The opening of new trade corridors between China and Tajikistan through (Kulma Pass) and Kyrgysistan (Irkeshtam Road) with the support of Shangai Cooperation Organisation –SCO has resulted to improve mutual relations which need to be extended with other peripheral mountain countries for broader impact.

The geopolitical interferences from the centres of empires have always created a state of dispute and uncertainly in the isolated mountain regions which affected the livelihoods of the local people. The need arises for regional platforms in order to help utilisation of the common resources for the development of the mountain dwellers living around Pamir region.

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  1. wounderful Zulfiqar Bhai…………………….That is is very informative and interesting.

  2. Thanks for that view on history and presence of the whole Pamir.
    All historic articles I have seen elsewhere are looking at “countries” history within their borders from the imperial time on (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kasachstan, …) – and all say, that the countries are mixed of several ethnic groups, but none shows how divided these populations are through the country borders. None has been ethnic orientated before. So again thanks for that!

    Although our western gouvernments do not like ideas like this – but: If we come to something like democracy in the region, won’t it be possible to recreate the old ethnic borders in a peaceful way (like the division of Czech and Slovaky in the 90ies)? Or are todays polotical structures stronger than the ethnical roots?
    Would you expect that peaceful changes of the borders would make the whole region more peaceful and safe?

    Best regards from Germany

    ..who thinks that this would help in several parts of the world – like in Kurdistan (Turkey/Iran/Irak/Syria).

  3. Nice piece of information, ZAK.
    But suggestions like from ULSC may bring challenges of unprecedented proportions to the populations sparsely living in the pamirs, cuz the big powers and their servants have never thought, in the history, of local peoples’ rights (even to live?).

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