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The Tajikistani-Afghan Border in Gorno-Badakhshan: Resources of a War-Torn Neighborhood


How can a country at peace benefit from bordering a war-torn country? Using the hypothesis of borders as resources developed by Feyissa and Hoehne (State Borders & Borderlands as Resources: An Analytical Framework. In Borders and Borderlands as Resources in the Horn of Africa, eds. Dereje Feyissa, and Markus Virgil Hoehne, 1–26. Woodbridge: James Currey), I explore the opportunities created by the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the Badakhshan region, which is covered by the Pamirs mountains. This paper explores the contradiction that the border is conventionally seen as a danger, yet it is used to enhance cooperation between the two countries on the ground. Without diminishing the challenges involved, I underline the conditions under which the border generates economic, social and identity capital, and becomes a micro-level resource. This positive characterization of the border area as a space of opportunity rather than a limit is informed by original ethnographic insights coupled with existing social science research. With this analysis, I aim to contribute theoretically to the way in which so-called sensitive borders are perceived.


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the way for the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan to be reopened, political discourse and much of the scholarly literature has discursively linked the border to drug trafficking and illegal crossings that have been fueled by the wars in Afghanistan. This framing of the issue has necessarily drawn Tajikistan, still a developing state itself, into the resolution of the Afghan conflict. Consequently, ever since the involvement of NATO in Afghanistan in 2001, Tajikistan has enjoyed a more prominent position on the world stage.

In 2014, triggered by the withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan, the regional context began to change. As instability moved north in Afghanistan toward the provinces that border Tajikistan, the international community began to wonder about the impact of the war on Tajikistan. Yet although the wars in Afghanistan since 1979 have caused that border to become associated with violence and danger in international discourse, realities on the ground – as well as the academic debate on Pamiri Tajikistanis’ perceptions of Afghans – call into question this perspective and reveal the border’s more positive characteristics.

Badakhshan is one of the Afghan provinces that borders the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province (GBAO) in Tajikistan. “Borderlands” in Badakhshan refers in this paper to the entire border strip that encompasses six districts of GBAO in Tajikistan and eight districts in the far North-Eastern part of Afghanistan (see ). These areas are located in the heart of the Pamirs mountain range, which covers the fringes of Tajikistan as well as parts of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan. The Pamiri communities that live in this geographical knot represent minorities on the territorial margins of these four countries, as they differ from their co-citizens in terms of ethnic belonging, languages, and religious practices. Borderland people in the Pamirs are mostly Ismaili and follow the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of all Ismailis across the globe. Ismailism is a branch of Shi’ism, the mission (da’wa) of which spread in the region at the end of the ninth century (Elnazarov and Aksakolov Citation2011, 47). In Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the majority of the population is Sunni, and both countries are characterized by complex and diverse ethnic patterns.

Figure 1. Author’s Map of Tajikistan and Afghanistan Borderlands in the Region of Badakhshan, 2020; Based on Levi-Sanchez (Citation2016), and Personal Fieldwork.

Figure 1. Author’s Map of Tajikistan and Afghanistan Borderlands in the Region of Badakhshan, 2020; Based on Levi-Sanchez (Citation2016), and Personal Fieldwork.

During the Soviet era, Pamiris would be ascribed the term “Mountain Tajiks” as part of the government’s efforts to integrate Pamiris into the group of Tajiks in Tajikistan. In China, “Tajiks” describes Chinese Ismaili populations that speak a Pamiri language (Kreutzmann Citation2016, 25), even if they are not ethnically Tajik. It is safe to say that in their countries of residence, Pamiris have been sidelined ever since international borders carved up the region at the end of the nineteenth century.

In official discourse, although the Tajikistani authorities emphasize the “brotherhood” that exists with Afghanistan, they regularly frame the border as a limit in order to attract international assistance. The narratives of external and regional observers such as China, Russia and the United States align with these statements (Heathershaw Citation2009, 127–28). Insisting that proximity to Afghanistan creates security issues allows regional powers to justify their military presence in Tajikistan. Media portrayals have reinforced this perception of Afghanistan: as Foltz observes, “endless gruesome images and reports of violence and suffering” have been “the mainstay of Afghanistan’s depiction in the mass media since the late 1970s” (Citation2019, 191).

The geopolitical situation in the region has had a ripple effect on the academic literature. In particular, security-focused studies devoted to the impact of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on Central Asia identify the border as a vector for instability mostly because radical Islam and drug trafficking are deeply rooted there (Rasool Citation2019; Saikal and Nourzhanov Citation2016; Goodhand Citation2012; Makarenko Citation2001; Nourzhanov and Saikal Citation2021). Such publications lack a micro-level perspective that would explore the situation through the eyes of those who live on the border. Instead, they tend to analyze dynamics along the border using a macro-scale lens that glosses over the effects of cross-border activities on the inhabitants of that border. When asked, however, people in the borderlands are more likely to see the border as creating “corridors of opportunity” than as presenting the “filters” or “barriers” described by the government of Tajikistan or the scholarly literature (Parham Citation2010, 92).

Thus, while I do not deny the limitations that the border imposes, I intend to underline its positive facets. I seek to take a more nuanced view of borders that sees them as more than just a line delineating between nation-states and separating borderland dwellers. Some studies go along those lines. There exists, for instance, and academic discourse that calls for developing cross-border infrastructure projects in order to stabilize Afghanistan (Olimov and Olimova Citation2013; Tolipov Citation2013; Tashrifov Citation2016). On the whole, however, this discourse remains marginal. Compounding the problem, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Badakhshan has drawn little attention from authors in the field of border studies; indeed, it is rarely even mentioned in publications about the borders of Central Asia. Ever since the 1990, the Ferghana Valley has attracted more academic attention than any other borderland in the region (Balland Citation1997; Damiani Citation2013; Gavrilis Citation2008; Gonon and Lasserre Citation2003; Megoran Citation2004; Parham Citation2016b; Reeves Citation2014, Citation2016, Citation2018; Thorez Citation2003). By contrast, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan has not been the subject of in-depth studies, with the exception of the work of Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, which focuses on local leadership dynamics (Levi-Sanchez Citation2016, Citation2018a, Citation2018b), and Till Mostowlansky, who uses the border as an example to explore various concepts, but not the idea of the border as a resource (Mostowlansky Citation2014, Citation2017, Citation2019). Sébastien Peyrouse and Tobias Kraudzun have conducted research on Pamiri networks in general, but their work does not focus exclusively on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border (Peyrouse Citation2012; Kraudzun Citation2012).

Taking the hypothesis of borders as resources developed by Feyissa and Hoehne (Citation2010) as a point of departure, and then combining this with empirical methods and existing literature on the region in order to assess what can be observed at the level of ordinary people in the borderlands of Badakhshan, it is possible to challenge the caricature of the Southern border of Central Asia as a haven for insecurity. Such a stereotype-laden discourse may be accessible, but it fails to capture the complex reality on the ground.

I first briefly introduce the historical background of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and the theoretical and methodological approaches that I employed. Next, I illustrate Feyissa and Hoehne’s theory in Badakhshan using the examples of three cross-border activities that represent tangible opportunities created by the border. Finally, I use borderlanders’ narratives to analyze how the border has strengthened Pamiri identity, a possible extension of Feyissa and Hoehne’s definition of borders as resources.

Narrowing Down the Context: The Development of Tajikistan’s Border with Afghanistan

Following the Amu Darya river, also known in Tajikistan as the Pyanj river, the current border stretches for approximately 1300 km (808 miles), dividing the provinces of Khatlon and GBAO from the province of Badakhshan in Afghanistan. The demarcation of the border was a process that began in 1872 and took more than a century. Initially, the border was meant to distinguish the British and Russian Empires’ areas of influence, with the result that it was of strategic importance throughout the nineteenth century (Kreutzmann Citation2017, 9).

The 1860’ saw Tsarist troops advance en masse into the territories governed by local Uzbek khanates above the Amu Darya, such as Khiva and Bukhara. On the other side of the river, the various kings of Afghanistan sought to extend their power to the lands located between the upper Amu Darya and the Hindu Kush mountains (Ewans Citation2010, 18–19).

Until the arrival of the Soviets, the Badakhshan region and the Pamirs were ruled by local leaders or mirs and remained semi-autonomous.Footnote1 They formally paid taxes to either Bukhara or Kabul, but were governed by their own laws and customs.Footnote2 In his autobiography, the Emir of Kabul, Abdur Rahman Khan, describes with bitterness his relations with the leaders of the border populations, who, he claimed, pursued an opportunistic policy, variously seeking Afghan protection or Russian help (Citation1900, 149).Footnote3 But as the Russians advanced toward the river, local leaders found themselves trapped between the Tsarist forces and the Emir of Kabul. Although some of them triggered rebellions against the Afghan yoke, they were unsuccessful and forced into exile (Straub Citation2013, 33).

After a series of negotiations between the colonial powers, an agreement was reached in 1895. The territories on the Northern bank of the Amu Darya, were allocated to the Russian Empire, and those on the Southern bank to the British-backed Emir of Kabul. Although the agreement was a success for the imperial cabinets, the micro-level reality was more nuanced. For local people, nationality or citizenship had no salience, nor did official boundaries (Collier Citation2009, 6). The international border was only a reality on maps and in the minds of foreign officers; families on both banks continued to cross the river to visit their relatives.

In 1936, in order to defuse the anti-revolutionary potential of ties with Afghanistan, the Soviet power imposed a tight border control and ultimately sealed it, a state of affairs that endured until 1991. Although local insurrections against the Revolution, most prominently the Basmachi movement, would make use of the border, they tended to occur along the Western part of the border rather than along the portion in the Pamirs.Footnote4 With the closure of the border, however, all exchanges were stopped, whether religious, economic or personal. As one of my respondents expressively described it, the Pamirs were “cut out with an ax” (in Shughni: tavar taqsim), a phrase that encapsulates the devastating impact of the end of cross-border relations.Footnote5 The closure was swift and brutal, as reflected in a story I was told about a woman who had grown up and lived on the Afghan side before coming to Soviet Tajikistan to visit relatives just before the border closed. “One day they woke up, and the border was closed. She could never go back to Afghanistan.”Footnote6 Unable to return to her hometown, she married another man in Tajikistan and stayed there with her daughter, leaving her first husband in Afghanistan.

Thanks to a bilateral treaty signed on February 28 1921, portions of the borderlands that had belonged to Afghanistan throughout the nineteenth century were transferred to the Soviet Union. But the Soviets’ decision to seal off the border was far less territorial than it was ideological, rooted in the Soviet desire to create a new model of society. As Charles Shaw puts it, “the border itself, separating the sacred socialist world from the profanity of capitalism, was to be ‘na zamok,' or ‘under lock and key,' in contrast to the loose flows of people, goods and money under the tsar.” (Citation2011, 332) Paradoxically, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were characterized by cooperation. The border thus became a resource for exporting the Soviet model to a friendly country and represented the part of the territory where the entire system could be judged by foreigners. Along the Amu Darya river in the Pamirs, where the stream is in some places just a few meters wide, Afghans could easily observe the development taking place on the other side of the border. As will be shown later in this paper, residents of the borderlands who grew up in the Soviet era contend that Afghanistan would be more developed today had it benefited from “the same conditions of living.”Footnote7 It is thus safe to argue that the end of cross-border contacts, along with the desire to integrate Tajikistan into the Soviet nation-building project, continues to impact how Afghans are perceived today.

On June 16 1981, the last bilateral treaty to define the still-sealed border was signed by Afghan and Soviet authorities, “reaffirm[ing] the inviolability of the existing boundary between the two countries in the Pamirs” (Balland Citation2000). Throughout the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979–1989), the borderlands were traversed by Red Army soldiers, mujahideen, and Afghan civilians seeking refuge beyond the river, thus fixing the border in the context of the Cold War. In 1991, when Tajikistan became independent, the very same border became the official line of separation between that new country and Afghanistan. The civil war that hit Tajikistan between 1992 and 1997 again saw actors using or experiencing violence at the border.

Even though the border was reopened after the fall of the USSR, the two countries it divides have remained on different socio-political trajectories. That being said, current practices demonstrate that cross-border connections have been re-established in various sectors as a result of the reopening in 1991, thus transforming the borderlands into a space of resources and shaping new perceptions.

Theoretical Framework: The Border as a Resource

When it comes to considering borders as resources, my perspective is inspired by the work of Dereje Feyissa and Markus Virgil Hoehne. In their study of borders in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, they define the resources produced by the border as follows:

immaterial resources such as social relations (across the border), the placement within the territorial, political or social landscape, or any kind of claim that can be made with regard to the state borders and/or borderlands in order to attain social, economic, or political benefits. (Citation2010, 1)

Just like in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the dominant focus in the Horn of Africa and East Africa is on borders as constraints (Feyissa and Hoehne Citation2010, 21). Yet, these scholars consider the residents of these areas to be active inhabitants rather than passive secondary communities at the mercy of decisions made in the political center. They argue that even though the border creates separation, it also makes it possible to forge new interpersonal connections as well as conduct economic and socio-political activities (Feyissa and Hoehne Citation2010, 9). These immaterial resources that exist along the border underline the agency and the ability of borderland dwellers to capitalize on their location. Applying these authors’ perspective in a new context, I view borderlands inhabitants in remote areas of Tajikistan as being active. Along Tajikistan’s Southern border in Badakhshan, local actors are hardly victims of insecurity coming from Afghan provinces or passive recipients of decisions made in Dushanbe. Following Feyissa and Hoehne, as well as Michiel Baud and William Van Schendel, I argue for a “view from the periphery” (Baud and Van Schendel Citation1997, 212). By referring to those authors, I claim to focus here on the social realities of those who live at the border and who are affected by them, rather than focusing on central governments which are by definition located away from the territorial periphery. I share borderlanders’ own words as well as their non-verbal behavior in order to highlight their border experience. Seeing the border as an opportunity structure recognizes that those border inhabitants are actors in their own right as opposed to peripheral communities (Feyissa and Hoehne Citation2010, 12–13). Therefore, when using the term “resources,” this paper will employ the definition suggested by Feyissa and Hoehne to illuminate the ways in which borderlanders make the most of living near a border – and, in the case of Tajikistan, near a neighborhood at war.

This type of positive approach to the topic – which highlights the fact that so-called sensitive borders can serve as resources for various actors – is not necessarily captured in the literature on border studies. Borders are typically seen as resources in urban spaces (Sohn Citation2014b); within Western Europe where borders are removed (Sohn Citation2014a; Sohn, Reitel, and Walther Citation2007; Ratti Citation1994); or when not fully investigated through a specific case study (Johnson et al. Citation2011). Feyissa and Hoehne’s theorization proves relevant in the case of Badakhshan as they apply a positive perspective on borders in areas negatively perceived and mostly rural, unlike the abovementioned literature. Moreover, they do not see the border only as economic resources and underline their other dimensions. Because the borderlands in Badakhshan remain isolated and rural in both Afghanistan and Tajikistan and that I identified various resources, Feyissa and Hoehne’s argument is more valuable than those in application of urban contexts.

Although this analysis of the borderlands in Badakhshan relies on the concept of borders as resources, it also shows that the concept has some limitations. The renewal of borderlanders’ everyday practices suggests that Feyissa and Hoehne’s definition of borders as resources should be broadened to include not only social, economic or political benefits, but also the reconnection of historical ties on both sides of the border that has allowed for the strengthening of Pamiri identity, as the last section of this article argues.

In discussing economic resources, I also draw on Oscar Martinez’s important contribution looking at the U.S.-Mexico border (Citation1994) and Chris Rumford’s assumption about the benefits for borderworkers (Johnson et al. Citation2011). For Martinez, communities are also consumers, as the border zone offers “numerous opportunities to buy more for less” (Citation1994, 52) due to asymmetrical economic systems. Indeed, borderlands are unique places within a country, as communities can benefit from resources unavailable in the heartland, thanks to direct transnational dynamics (Martinez Citation1994, 25). For Rumford, borders facilitate rather than limiting mobility, and can be seen as, in his phrase, “engines of connectivity” (Johnson et al. Citation2011, 67). Local initiatives that seek to foster cross-border activities – whether these initiatives are launched by entrepreneurs, citizens or grass-roots activists – provide “borderworkers with new political and/or economic opportunities: the uses of borders are many and various” (Johnson et al. Citation2011, 67).

Finally, like Benjamin D. Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, when it comes to studying borders and those living along them, I believe it is important to bring attention to those social aspects of a people or a region that receive little focus in academic studies. Looking at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hopkins and Marsden explain that much of the scholarly literature on this border paints a picture that differs from the one they extracted from their experiences on the field or what they derived from the archives (Hopkins and Marsden Citation2013; Marsden Citation2016). They nuance the existing caricatures of the customs, traditions, and religious practices of the Pashtuns who inhabit the Afghanistan–Pakistan frontier, arguing instead that “the ‘utility’ of scholarly work is located in its capacity to theorize and develop a conceptual language to address issues important to the places and people it studies, to ask and frame questions of broader historical and societal significance” (Hopkins and Marsden Citation2013, 4). In the case of the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Badakhshan, my fieldwork draws out other facets of everyday life in the borderlands than those identified in the aforementioned literature. Thus, just like Hopkins and Marsden, I want to shed light on what the literature on this border tends to miss, namely the borderlanders and their border experience. In short, the point of considering borders as resources is to take those under-studied elements into account and to investigate “how people can make the best of being divided by state borders” (Feyissa and Hoehne Citation2010, 22).

Methods: Extensive Fieldwork and Secondary Literature

My research is based primarily on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted along the border in Tajikistan and with the Pamiri diaspora in Bishkek, including recorded interviews, direct observations, and institutional reports that I gathered while there.

Between the borderland regions of Gorno-Badakhshan, Dushanbe, and Bishkek, I conducted fifteen formal personal interviews with individuals who have experienced the border with Afghanistan. To determine the necessary number of interviews, I employed the criterion of achieved saturation. Saturation point is reached when adding new data to research does not improve the researcher’s understanding of the phenomenon under study. This signals that they can stop collecting data, analyzing data, or both (Bleick and Pekkanen Citation2013, 91; Mucchielli Citation2009, 226). Since this research focuses on Pamiri perceptions of the border, the respondents were chosen because they were border inhabitants still living there, who grew up in border villages during Soviet times and moved elsewhere, or who traverse the border as high-skilled experts in Afghanistan. They were contacted through personal referrals and did not belong to the same social network. On a daily basis, I would also have informal conversation in Tajik with borderland dwellers met unexpectedly (i.e. in a shop on the road, in a tea house or during a religious gathering). Meeting Afghan merchants and Tajikistani Pamiri customers at local bazaars in Tajikistan or cross-border markets, I sought to learn more about the products sold and their quality, and sometimes asked permission to photograph them. The casual conversations I had in Dushanbe with Tajiks from outside of Gorno-Badakhshan were originally excluded from my sample and are not the focus of this research. However, they helped me understand the territorial aspect of perceptions of the border that is, the ways in which Pamiris living close to the border see it differently than do ethnic Tajik inhabitants of the central areas of the country. I performed the formal semi-structured interviews in the summer of 2019, while observations and conversations were conducted on and off between 2014 and 2019.

Interviews ranged in length from 30 minutes to an hour. The youngest participant was 24 years old; the oldest were over 60. They volunteered and did not receive any compensation for their time. Interviews were conducted in respondents’ choice of Tajik or English. In Dushanbe, I was accompanied by a Shughni/Russian interpreter who translated questions and answers into English for those who did not want to or could not use Tajik or English. In Gorno-Badakhshan and Bishkek, I conducted the interviews independently. I structured a set of questions but used a conversational approach that gave interviewees latitude to expand and comment on any related topic. The interviews and discussions centered on the history of the border, experiences of crossing the border, and perceptions of Afghans and Afghanistan. Those interview narratives are important for the theoretical argument in that they help to illuminate whether or not the border is perceived as a resource, how these resources materialize in everyday life, and if there exists a sense of Pamiri identity that transcends the administrative border. Most of the ethnographic material presented here is therefore discursive. I also observed how transborder cooperation with Afghanistan materializes in the lives of borderland dwellers through direct observation. When speaking of direct observation, I refer to information represented by the physical world in the field (places, buildings, roads, bridges, etc.) as well as information belonging to the immaterial world (the researcher’s interpretation, the social relations in which they participate and unstructured discussions). Spending time at the border, with host families was indispensable to my understanding of the experience of the border and the practices of borderlanders. My presence on the ground was also essential to assess the evolution of physical infrastructure along the border (bridges, markets, transmission lines, healthcare centers, etc.) and locals’ use thereof.

In addition to interviews and observations, I rely on secondary literature as a way to triangulate information. Allowing these three different sources of data to converse provides me with a solid base for applying Feyissa and Hoehne’s theory to Badakhshan while debunking or nuancing negative claims about the border.

Studying the border of a country at war raised methodological as well as ethical issues. Due to perceptions of Afghanistan that are shaped by media stereotypes and researchers’ relatives concerned about them, carrying out fieldwork in so-called “dangerous” areas produces apprehension (Lee Citation1995). My research tries to demystify the perception of the border as a threat and attempts to show that it does not qualify as an environment at risk. However, there is no denying that danger can emerge whenever sensitive topics are dealt with, which has not been my intention. Marsden points out that conducting intensive fieldwork along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan is “constrained by the high level of secrecy maintained both by traders and state officials, especially regarding the movement of opium and heroin and other illegal commodities” (Citation2016, 20). Addressing these topics would naturally make fieldwork more sensitive. Thus, to avoid endangering people who helped me there, I – like Marsden in the 2010s – decided not to address cross-border smuggling, which I myself never witnessed, yet without denying its existence. For the same reason, I will not mention here the names of my respondents, but only data salient to the analysis, namely their age and place of residence.

To further minimize risk, I chose my fieldwork sites based on safety and previous experiences in the country. I thus exclusively went to Dushanbe and along the border in the Gorno-Badakhshan province, and did not conduct fieldwork in the Khatlon province, even though I had to travel through it to reach villages in GBAO. The Western part of the border in Khatlon is flat and therefore more accessible to various types of smugglers, thus less secure than the portion in Badakhshan. GBAO is no longer part of the main corridor for drug traffickers, who prefer to use “less geographically challenging routes through Khatlon” (Tadjbakhsh Citation2012, 5). This in no way compromised my research, as Khatlon is not part of the Pamirs and is irrelevant to an analysis of the Pamiri identity at the border.

Three Illustrations of the Border as a Resource in Badakhshan

In 1937, British geographer William Gordon East drew a distinction between “frontiers of contact” and “frontiers of separation” (Prescott Citation1987, 43). Elaborating on East’s argument, political geographer John Robert Prescott asserts that certain borders encourage contacts – whether trade, tax payment, migration of conflict – between distinct political groups, whether due to “the attraction of their resources or the ease with which they can be crossed” (Citation1987, 43). Historically, the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Badakhshan has met this definition.

After over sixty years of closure, the border was reopened for traffic in 1991. Following the end of the civil war in Tajikistan, cross-river contacts resumed. They materialized in cross-border markets, bridges, substations sending electricity from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and comprehensive health centers where high-skilled Tajikistani doctors can treat Afghan patients. When asked to name the physical cross-border projects connecting the two sides of the river of which they were aware, my interviewees would mention all of these. Beyond the idea that the border supposedly divides Pamiris in Badakhshan, this infrastructure represents the “visible” resources provided by the border – and also creates what Feyissa and Hoehne call “invisible” opportunities. In this section, I use examples of cross-border projects given to me by borderlanders to detail how those resources are produced by the border. It aims to visualize all the resourceful activities taking place along the border today ().

Healthcare Opportunities in the Borderlands

There is a discrepancy between the quality of healthcare in Tajikistan, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, on the other. During the Soviet era, Tajikistan enjoyed significant investment in the sector. Although this was jeopardized by the civil war and subsequent economic collapse, international organizations’ efforts to rehabilitate the system have partially made up for the catastrophic post-1997 situation (Bliss Citation2006, 278; Epkenhans Citation2016, 360), even if access to medical facilities and a shortage of trained staff remain issues in most parts of GBAO (Statistical Agency under the President of the Republic of Tajikistan and ICF Citation2018).

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, recurrent conflicts have prevented development that would already have been difficult due to the constraining topography of Badakhshan and inherent poverty. For instance, it can take several days of travel on bumpy mountain paths to reach the capital province, Fayzaabaad from a remote village in the Wakhan valley. Populations there are thus prevented from receiving decent medical treatment provided by the Afghan government or the few remaining NGOs.

In 2010, a cross-border project was launched with the goal of improving the quality of and access to healthcare for communities along the border (Price and Hakimi Citation2019, 42). Taking advantage of the fact that crossing the border takes a matter of hours, if not minutes, the program established three comprehensive health centers on the Afghan side where high-skilled Tajikistani specialists can provide their expertise to Afghans living along the border (see ). Under the program, Afghans can also be treated in hospitals in Tajikistan without holding a visa, should they need further treatment. For these extremely poor communities isolated from the political center, the border has thus become a resource: living along the border with Tajikistan provides access to healthcare, which remains a crucial need in Afghan Badakhshan, where under-five mortality is still very high (Central Statistics Organization, Ministry of Public Health, and ICF Citation2017), and war violence never too far away. In the town of Ishkashim which marks the entrance to the Wakhan valley on the Tajikistani side, I heard on multiple occasions that Afghan civilians were being treated in the local hospitals for war injuries. Without this proximity to Tajikistan, it is likely that they would not have received care.

Experts in Tajikistan also benefit from the border. When I ask my respondents who crosses the border, they often mention doctors, underlining the advantages of the trip: “The salaries are higher there, why people from here go there and why? They are invited because they need specialists in these spheres in Afghanistan.”Footnote8

As a woman who used to work for the program explained to me, some doctors spend five days a week in Afghanistan and return to Tajikistan for the weekend.Footnote9 Working on the other side of the border not only allows them to access higher salaries than are available in Tajikistan, but also enables them to gain experience. A 24-year-old dentist in Khorog explained to me that because of the decades-long poverty in Afghanistan, there are diseases that are not seen in Tajikistan. According to him, medical practitioners can enhance their knowledge and skills by treating patients with specific or rare illnesses:

If you are good at your profession, sometimes they have a kind of, exchange experience, I don’t know exactly how to say that, you can exchange with doctors who are coming from Afghanistan, and you can work there for maybe three or four months and they come here. And this is all through the AKDN, I think. You can go and get a lot of experience from that side and they can get some experience from you. And you know about their people, about their programs, because every country has its own, how to say, its one local disease.Footnote10

Regardless of poverty and war violence, cross-border engagement directly impacts local communities on both sides of a border. The example of healthcare opportunities provided by the border relates to the agency of borderlanders to which Feyissa and Hoehne refer. In the case of Tajikistanis, it proves that they are not mere specialists confined to their own country, but that they seize the opportunity to work in Afghanistan with and for Afghans to enhance their expertise and increase their salaries.

Concrete illustrations of the opportunities provided in the borderlands of Badakhshan show that local populations do not regard the border as a threat or a limit on their state of peace, but as a resource that can be used to improve their economic capital and their knowledge. Other projects that aim to connect the whole Pamirs region also demonstrate that a new system of connections between Pamiris could emerge that transcends the administrative boundary.

Energy Supply across the River: Weaving a New Transnational Network in the Pamirs

Traveling along the river in Badakhshan, it is easy to see the transmission lines installed on either side of the river and the multiplication of this infrastructure over the years. Electricity physically marks the landscapes along and across the border, symbolizing the re-connection of the two banks. Ever since the end of the civil war, material structures supported – if not fostered – by an organization that is part of the highest Ismaili leader’s efforts to connect followers have slowly been taking over from religious networks in bringing together the Ismaili community.

In 2018, only 32% of the Afghan population was connected to the grid (Price and Hakimi Citation2019, 10–11). Afghanistan’s need for energy is therefore considerable. Since 2002, Pamir Energy, a company created under a concession agreement between the government of Tajikistan and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), has been the main actor in working to electrify the region, as well as to connect Afghanistan and Tajikistan in general, notably by funding the construction of cross-border bridges after the Tajikistani civil war. AKDN is a transnational humanitarian organization founded by the spiritual leader of the Ismaili. It supports Ismaili-inhabited areas worldwide and provides financial and staffing support in the borderlands of Badakhshan. One of its aims is to “increase the sense of solidarity” between Ismailis, and, in the case of the Pamirs, between Ismailis who have long been separated (Manetta Citation2011, 378). Following the damage and destruction of Tajikistan’s and Afghanistan’s respective hydropower infrastructures by the fall of the USSR in the case of the former and by decades of war in the case of the latter, Pamir Energy has been working to restore power plants in GBAO and thus increased access to affordable and reliable electricity in both Tajikistani and Afghan Badakhshan. The mandate of the concession agreement allows for generation, distribution, and transmission from Tajikistan all the way to Northern Pakistan.

According to Pamir Energy’s own data, which I acquired in Khorog, 96% of the population of GBAO received electricity year-round in 2019. This is a dramatic improvement on 2002, when Pamir Energy took over: at the time just 12% of the population had 12 hour of interrupted electricity per day.Footnote11 To date, 5% of Afghan Badakhshan is electrified; an agreement signed on July 22 2019, aims to achieve 100% coverage of the province within 30 years.Footnote12 As Price and Hakimi argue, the cross-border element proves that capacities in one country, namely Tajikistan, can be used to meet the needs of populations beyond its borders (Citation2019, 23). Communities on both sides of the Pyanj are benefiting from large-scale projects.

From an institutional perspective, the transborder electricity networks seem to be the result of economic policies. From a historical perspective, they bear additional significance. Mostowlansky claims that bridges across the river constitute the “most visible, material aspect” of the attempt to reconnect Tajikistan and Afghanistan at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Citation2017, 3). I would add that transmission lines also embody the revival of communication between the two parts of the borderlands. This is true not only at the micro level along the border but in the Pamirs region more broadly, stretching all the way to Northern Pakistan. The history of the Pamirs is that of a place of mobility where a solid network enabled people in one valley to have connections with another valley miles away. Despite officially serving to distinguish between two territorial units, the borderlands in Badakhshan have nevertheless come to symbolize a secular system of connections.

Before borders were drawn in the nineteenth century, the religious life of Ismailis in the Pamirs was ruled by networks of local religious leaders known as pirs and khalifas, who were the most important source of control and organization in Badakhshan before the establishment of Ismaili institutions there (Iloliev Citation2013, 156; Citation2008, 8). Historians of Pamiri Islam note that these religious networks were unhindered by administrative boundaries and topography. A pir in the Sarikol region in present-day China, or in Chitral in Pakistan, could have followers in what is today Tajikistan (Aksakolov Citation2014, 27; Elnazarov and Aksakolov Citation2011, 50–51). With the closure of the border in the 1930’ and the arrival of larger Ismaili institutions in the region at the end of the 1990,’ these religious leaders lost their importance, leading to the collapse of the transborder networks they had held together.

Whereas historically the transnationalism of the Ismaili community in the Pamirs was symbolized by the networks of religious leaders, today it is embodied by transmission lines. Through electrification, Pamir Energy – an external actor with a religious footprint – is “un-making” the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Just like religious networks in the past, this physical infrastructure transcends the administrative division and establishes connections across the river by using the border as a resource.

In sum, the transnational aspect of the Ismaili is a core historical component of the community. The hurdles represented by the war in Afghanistan could disrupt the networks in the areas targeted by Pamir Energy but the data above show an increase in supply. The un-making of the border, along with other cross-border infrastructure and projects, are likely to eventually produce new types of border practices in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Extracting Economic Resources Through Cross-Border Markets

The topography and remoteness of the Pamirs mountain range in Tajikistan and Afghanistan has been conducive to producing economic opportunities along the river since the beginning of the twenty-first century. For Tajikistani buyers, the cross-border bazaars are a place not only of economic benefits, but also of interactions with Afghan Pamiris that shape their perceptions of the other side.

Tangible and visible connectivity is a direct consequence of the creation of several bridges linking the two Badakhshans (see ). In 2002, the first bridge across the Pyanj river was built in Tem thanks to the support of the AKDN. In 2006, cross-border activities began through an AKDN program that secured permission for Afghan women to go to Tajikistan via the Darwaz border post (Peyrouse Citation2012, 7). The establishment of such infrastructure allowed for the creation of a cross-border market that runs every week, as well as paving the way for the construction of four other similar bridges, three of which lead to a bazaar (see ). In 2019, approximately 1000 traders benefited from these markets on a weekly basis, (Price and Hakimi Citation2019, 28). Additionally, a 2016 report compiled by Samuel Hall consulting group for the International Organization of Migration (IOM) showed that nearly 60% of the borderlands population in both Tem and Ishkashim shop in cross-border markets (Barratt Citation2016, 39). Although these bazaars represent small-scale trade, the reality behind this number is that they are attended and crowded (as shown in ).

Figure 2. Author’s Picture of the Cross-Border Bridge and Bazaar in Vanj District (Afghanistan), 2019.

Figure 2. Author’s Picture of the Cross-Border Bridge and Bazaar in Vanj District (Afghanistan), 2019.

Figure 3. Author’s Picture of the Cross-Border Bazaar in Ishkashim (Tajikistan), 2014.

Figure 3. Author’s Picture of the Cross-Border Bazaar in Ishkashim (Tajikistan), 2014.

In their discussion of economic opportunities in the borderlands, Feyissa and Hoehne, and Martinez, stress the resources extracted from currency arbitrage due to the asymmetry between adjacent countries (Feyissa and Hoehne Citation2010, 13–14; Martinez Citation1994, 52). While there is no denying that merchants at the cross-border bazaars in Badakhshan can earn greater profits along the border than in the heartland, buyers at the Tajikistani-Afghan border also benefit from spending money at the border rather than within their country of origin. Specifically, buyers enjoy access to specific goods and make savings:

What was interesting for me are the old things. The old things I usually buy for my family. For example, deg,” Afghan “deg.” Cooking things. Sometimes they bring very good-quality clothes, shoes.Footnote13

Thus, going to the bazaar affords Tajikistanis the opportunity to buy unique and rare products that are not found in Tajikistan, as well as to get non-Chinese goods for a decent price. They may acquire kitchenware such as deg, a large cooking pot that is hardly found in Tajikistan; shoes and clothing; herbs; popular, and sometimes ancient Afghan jewelry (); or even old audio sets: “There were a lot of things that were old. Really old things and they are selling them. The speakers, for example [mentions the radio that he bought for a friend]. Have you seen it? It’s really old!”Footnote14

Figure 4. Author’s Picture of Products Sold by an Afghan Merchant at the Cross-Border Bazaar in Tem (Tajikistan), 2019.

Figure 4. Author’s Picture of Products Sold by an Afghan Merchant at the Cross-Border Bazaar in Tem (Tajikistan), 2019.

It also allows low-income Tajikistanis to afford what is sold and benefit from better prices than in the heartland, as my respondents told me:

They are some people who are really poor and need to save their money and they visit this market in order to just … the price is not very high, the price is low, that’s why people who are poor visit it.Footnote15

This is particularly true in the case of the cross-border market in Vanj district, at the entrance of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, as one Tajikistani merchant who occasionally trades there explained to me. This also confirms Marsden’s argument regarding Afghan bazaars worldwide: in his view, “Afghan markets are considered to be interesting for their imperfections – largely, the degree to which access to them is determined by economic inequalities.” (Citation2013, 94)

Moreover, I argue that the border is in motion insofar as it enables the exploration of specific forms of connectivity. This renders the cross-border bazaars able to produce connection, understood in the sense of being related to someone or something else. While visiting the bazaar in Tem in 2019, my local Shughni-speaking friend told me he saw and heard two people greeting each other in Shughni in a small shelter that serves as a cafeteria. One was Afghan, the other was Tajikistani. He continued: “They [the Afghans] are so friendly with us. In the bazaar, everyone, now they know each other, they were just How are you? What’s up? How are you doing? What’s happening on that side?”Footnote16 Even though it is located between two countries, the border becomes a device for a relatively linguistically and ethnically homogeneous borderland. These direct interactions impact the way Tajikistanis perceive Afghans. Admiration and compassion were recurrent themes of the interviews I conducted with Tajikistanis after they visited an Afghan bazaar:

I think they are really brave because they fought, and they are fighting currently for their place and I can say that there is nothing precious there, but they are fighting and they are saying that it’s our place and no one, we won’t give it to anyone, that’s why all Afghan people they are really brave and I love people who are brave, and I respect them.Footnote17

As this response shows, respect that my Tajikistani Pamiri respondents pay to Afghans, is linked to the tense socio-political situation that the country has been experiencing for decades, if not centuries. Many of my informants – especially Pamiris in Tajikistan who lived through the Soviet period and benefited from access to education, work and healthcare – express regret that Afghanistan did not enjoy the general development provided by the Soviet system. The Soviet legacy has had a defining impact on perceptions of Afghans amongst that generation of borderlanders. In her study of Badakhshan Tajikistanis’ perceptions of Afghans, Manetta mentions how inhabitants of a village outside Khorog felt divided by the border “when they flipped on their electric lights in the evening, only to watch their counterparts on the Afghan side brighten and warm their dwellings by fire and lantern light.” (Citation2011, 378) Echoing this account, a woman who grew up in Tem, near Khorog, told me:

When we were driving to Rushan, where there is the border with Afghanistan, I was always looking there and thinking to myself, “How are they living without [glass] as windows?” and I thought … but lately, as I grew up, I understood they had some windows, not from [glass] but from other materials, right? Because in the winter it is really cold there and without windows … Footnote18

The words pronounced by borderlanders and shared in this section show that the two countries’ divergent histories still influence Tajikistanis’ perceptions of Afghans today, reinforced by what Tajikistanis witness at the cross-border markets. Thus, they strengthen the idea of a border that separates two worlds but not two peoples.

Local Perceptions of the Border as an Identity Capital

Strengthening Pamiri Identity

The reality of shared languages and a common faith is salient to Afghan and Tajikistani Pamiri border communities’ perceptions of one another. In this section, I provide an account of how cross-border interactions positively impact Pamiri identity, which in fine permeates through the administrative border. This presents an opportunity to extend Feyissa and Hoehne’s theory by suggesting that the border also provides identity capital.

Communities living along the Pyanj river in Badakhshan share common linguistic and religious characteristics. Living in the Pamirs, they call themselves “Pamiris,” and as such speak what linguists have categorized as Pamiri languages, which belong to the sub group of East-Iranian languages within the broader category of Indo-European languages (Kreutzmann Citation2018, 255). These languages are distinct from Tajik, a West-Iranian language, and therefore a Tajik speaker would not understand a Pamiri one.Footnote19 Nonetheless, the majority of Pamiris have a fair knowledge of Tajik, as it is the official national language of the Republic of Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, most Pamiris speak Dari, the local version of Persian, but some only understand and speak a Pamiri language. For example, in 2019, at the cross-border bazaar in Tem, two Afghan women selling herbs could not answer a question I framed in Dari and answered in Shughni instead, since it was the only language they could use. Afghan women sellers in these bazaars do not travel as much as Afghan men, who go to big cities such as Kunduz or Fayzaabaad, and may not have benefited from public education due to the remoteness of their villages in Badakhshan. As such, they do not come across the use of Dari. In Vanj where people speak a dialect of Tajik, a Tajikistani seller who grew up in the main town of the valley told me that he taught himself Shughni while hanging out with Shughni speakers in Khorog in order to trade at the cross-border bazaars.

For Kreutzmann, the speakers of Pamiri languages inhabit territories located in the Eastern part of Tajikistan, the North-East of Afghanistan, the Northern region of Chitral in Pakistan and a few settlements in the counties of Tashkurgan and Zeravshan in the far East of China’s Xinjiang province (Citation2016, 25; Citation2015, 484). Even if their languages are not always mutually intelligible, Pamiris share the Ismaili religion. In both Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Ismailis are a minority. There are no reliable statistics available regarding the exact percentage of Pamiri Ismailis in Afghanistan, but they likely represent less than 10% of the Afghan Shia population (United States Department of State Citation2017, 4), while in Tajikistan they comprise less than 2.5% of the entire Tajikistani population (Agency on Statistics under the President of Tajikistan Citation2020, 9).

This common culture, based mostly on language and religion, has a significant impact on how Pamiris in Tajikistan perceive other Pamiris. Manetta suggests that Tajikistanis from Badakhshan have a powerful nostalgia for what she calls “a ‘pure’ past,” a nostalgia that “allows them to understand and manage disparities associated with the border.” (Citation2011, 372) The transformations of cross-border dynamics brought about by border infrastructure have enabled human geography, through mobility, to impact the Pamiri identity. In his study of economic ties as a Pamiri identity marker in the Pamirs mountain range, Peyrouse finds that programs supporting cross-border mobility have reinforced the Ismaili identity in the Pamirs and the sense of a transnational community beyond the borders of Tajikistan (Citation2012). Likewise, when I asked people in Tajikistan, even in very remote settlements, to describe the Pamirs, they would always mention Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent China, thus underlining that they knew about other Pamiri settlements beyond their national boundaries. Pamiris in Tajikistan have reshaped their territorial perceptions of what it means to be Pamiri. The following accounts prove that despite the divergent socio-political trajectories of the two countries, the historical ties linking Pamiris in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have been reactivated and impact the way they see one another:

People living there [on the other side of the border in Afghanistan], near my village, they are the simple people, like us. If I see them, it’s like I see him [gesturing to his friend sitting next to him who is from the same village]. It’s the same people.Footnote20

On the two sides they are all Pamirians, I remember when the road, when the bridge was open, we called them “Afghon,” “Afghanis,” but they were … [asks interpreter for translation from Shughni] sad, they were so sad, they said, “We are not Afghans, we are Pamirians, why do you call us Afghans?” Because Afghans there, it’s a total different nation, so this thing, I remember. So on that part of the border, it is mostly Pamirians that are there.Footnote21

The border has become a resource for reviving Pamiri identity, which had been torn by decades of separation during the Soviet period. The thinking of these people highlights the need to understand identity in terms of religious and linguistic features and not only in relation to a national territory or a citizenship. Identity is also to be sensed in the way Tajikistani Pamiris perceive their Afghan neighbors.

“It is Just a River”: Tajikistani Pamiris’ Narratives towards Afghanistan and Afghans

In the second half of the nineteenth century and even before the border was made official, French explorers would describe the Pyanj river in the Pamirs as a “natural” and “conventional” frontier (De Rocca Citation1896, 269; Paquier Citation1876, 88). Today, the border that separates these two divergent socio-economic systems also delineates between two citizenships: being Afghan differs from being Tajikistani. However, borderlanders in Tajikistan employ a narrative that challenges the vision of the river as an a priori dividing factor, a “natural” limit between themselves and Afghans.

Along the border in Tajikistan, borderland dwellers confessed to me in conversation that due to the common features mentioned above and their historical ties, they felt closer to their neighbors across the river than they did to their co-citizens from other provinces of Tajikistan. The violence targeting Pamiris outside GBAO during the civil war plays a significant role in the tensions among Tajikistanis. This is also reflected in trade, as Peyrouse explains: “The narrative of many Pamiri involved in trade tends to draw a clear distinction between ‘Pamiri' and those ‘Tajiks' from Dushanbe and Kulyab” (Citation2012, 10–11).Footnote22

Being Afghan is, however, socially charged. Negative opinions of Afghans certainly exist in GBAO in relation to specific groups, although the literature on local perceptions of Afghanistan and its Northern border is divided. Some scholars describe Kirghiz Pamiris whose perceptions have been strongly influenced by the Soviet legacy: for these individuals, the border represents the source of violence that threatens Central Asia (Reeves Citation2014; Parham Citation2016a; Mostowlansky Citation2017). Other authors agree that Tajikistanis in Badakhshan have mixed feelings about their Afghan neighbors, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes scornful (Manetta Citation2011; Tadjbakhsh, Iskanderov, and Mohammadi Citation2015; Marsden Citation2016). Mostowlansky’s Kirghiz informants in GBAO, 300 km away from the border, think of Afghans as mujahideen now able to cross the border thanks to the bridges across the river (Citation2017, 16). The memory of Afghanistan as a haven for armed groups that fought against the Red Army remains entrenched in Tajikistan. Madeleine Reeves’ interlocutors in the Ferghana valley see the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan as a referent “for the kind of borders that should properly be closed to dangerous seepages of people and ideas” and “a site [that was] suffused with particular dangers” in the late 1990’ (Citation2014, 179, 198). During this decade, mobility to Afghanistan was characterized by Tajikistanis crossing the border to receive military training from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famous leader of the Northern Alliance who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan (Peyrouse Citation2012, 10).

In my series of interviews and informal conversations in villages along the border, almost all my respondents described Afghans across the river as being “the same people.” Only one respondent shared harsh feelings about Afghans. He specified that he did not refer to Afghans who lived across the border in Badakhshan, whom he considers to belong to his community. Instead, he referred to Afghans from other provinces, whom he would encounter in Dushanbe. It is unclear whether or not he referred to Pashtuns, as he would always use the term “Afghans.” They, he would explain, were different – they, – acted differently and disrespectfully toward other people.

These data suggest that territorial proximity in the Pamirs, combined with common linguistic and religious features, are conducive to feelings of similarity and closeness, but they also point to tensions in interactions with non-Pamiri Afghans. This might square my findings with those of Reeves and Mostowlansky, whose interviewees lived far from the Afghan border and were not Ismaili Pamiris but rather Sunnis. Concerning borderlanders in Tajikistan, Mostowlansky states, “The fact that they shared linguistic and religious identities with those on the other side of the Panj mattered little in their everyday lives,” adding that “together with the common Soviet past, the experience of modernization, and knowledge of Russian, delimitation from hostile Afghanistan was among the most frequently mentioned traits of Gorno-Badakhshani identity that spanned ethnicity, language, and religion.” (Citation2017, 15)

While I sometimes came across such indifference toward Afghans and Afghanistan, it was exclusively rooted in the minds of Tajikistanis over 50 years old. I would argue that belonging to a generation that lived through the Soviet period shapes such narratives toward Afghans and Afghanistan, whereas younger generations of Ismailis living along the border in GBAO, who have no personal memory of this era do not tend to see “Afghans” as one homogeneous group of people but rather distinguish borderlanders from the rest of the population. Perceptions are framed not only in terms of religion, language, and historical ties, but also through a sense of affiliation to a territory along the river.

The geographical aspect was originally used to legitimate the arguments of nineteenth century border-makers, who used mountain ranges or rivers as “natural evidence” of borders to avoid admitting that they were actually very convenient for military purposes (Gorshenina Citation2012, 156) even though the Pyanj did not yet separate Ismaili communities. Today, young Tajikistani Pamiris’ narratives toward Afghans play a significant role in transcending the administrative border and restoring an era when it was not a line of division. Indeed, the recognized border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan seems to be interpreted more as a river separating the same people than as an actual political boundary, just as it was until the end of the nineteenth century. “I think the closed border is not a problem for the Pamiris,” one young Tajikistani Pamiri told me once. “They can cross it. It is just a river!” Footnote23


The emphasis in this paper is on individuals, their perception of the border area and their activities in this specific type of space. My analysis of these cross-border dynamics using empirical data and existing social science research on the borderlands in Badakhshan corroborates Feyissa and Hoehne’s definition of borders as resources, while also suggesting that it could be extended to capture another element that makes for a beneficial border: namely the opportunity to reinforce a specific identity.

By demonstrating that the border connects as much as it divides, this research advocates for moving beyond the images of threat associated with the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It also nuances the widespread fear – whether genuine or exaggerated – that growing instability will spread across Central Asia from Afghanistan. Rather, the borderlands in Badakhshan remain a pocket of settlements relatively insulated from war violence. As such, they represent a space of opportunities for local actors as interactions built on cross-border infrastructure bring economic and social benefits and strengthen Pamiri identity.

Thus, this paper highlights the need to adopt multi-scalar approaches in order to understand complex phenomena such as borderland dynamics. At the micro level, once-interconnected Pamiri communities along the Pyanj that were divided by twentieth century history are now being provided with opportunities to reconnect. Putting these findings in regional perspective, people-to-people encounters at the border are key to reinterpreting Afghanistan’s borders as opportunities, a change in mindset that is a precondition for enhanced connectivity on the one hand, and for the development of Afghanistan on the other (Price and Hakimi Citation2019, 45).


I would like to thank the French Institute for Central Asian Studies (IFEAC) in Bishkek for offering me access to all its resources. In the United States, I would like to thank the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, both located at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. In Central Asia, my warmest thanks go to those who accepted to share their experience of the border and to facilitate my time there. Finally, I thank the two anonymous reviewers for comments on various elements of the paper.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Correction Statement

This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.

Additional information


This work was supported by the Institut de Recherche stratégique de l'Ecole militaire (IRSEM), Paris, as well as the Centre de Recherche Europes Eurasie (CREE) and the Ecole doctorale n°265, both at the Institut national des Langues et Civilisations orientales (INALCO), Paris. It was also partially funded by the Région Île de France in France.


1 In the Ismaili areas of the Pamirs, the mirs would represent both religious authorities following th Imam and secular authorities.

2 For instance, Frank Bliss explains that the central part of Darwaz, unlike its portion on the right bank of the river, had remained autonomous and under the authority of its own leader until 1878, on the condition of paying tribute to Bukhara which was refused in 1877. The troops of the Emir of Bukhara occupied the district in a short war that led to the death of 200 people. From then on, Darwaz was directly controlled by Bukhara and remained the only part of the Pamirs being de jure and de facto deprived of any form of autonomy at the end of the 19th century (Bliss Citation2006, 65).

3 A map designed by Kreutzmann to offer a visual idea of the territories of Badakhshan prior to the boundary delimitation shows that many principalities controlled lands on both sides of the river (Citation2015, 219).

4 For the Basmachis, Afghanistan represented a back-up zone and the border became a territorial resource. However, after the death of Ishan Soultan, a religious leader of Darwaz who fought against the Soviets, the movement’s resonance decreased in this one settlement of the Pamirs (Castagné Citation1925, 80).

5 Personal interview with a 50-year-old woman who grew up in Tem, Dushanbe, August 2019.

6 Personal interview with a woman in her fifties who grew up and lives in Khorog, Dushanbe, July 2019.

7 Personal interview with a woman in her fifties who grew up and lives in Khorog, Dushanbe, July 2019.

8 Personal interview with a 33-year-old woman who grew up in Porshinev, Dushanbe, July 2019.

9 Personal interview with a woman who worked for Aga Khan Health Services, Dushanbe, August 2019.

10 Personal interview with a dentist, Khorog, August 2019.

11 Pamir Energy in-house document, Lightning the Roof of the World, 2019 and personal interview with Sahar Ibrahimi, Regional Leader for Strategic Partnerships and Communications at Pamir Energy, Khorog, August 2019.

12 Pamir Energy in-house document, Lightning the Roof of the World, 2019 and personal interview with Sahar Ibrahimi, Regional Leader for Strategic Partnerships and Communications at Pamir Energy, Khorog, August 2019.

13 Personal interview with a man in his fifties who grew up in Porshinev, translation from Shughni to English, Dushanbe, August 2019.

14 Personal interview with a 24-year-old man who grew up and lives in Khorog, Khorog, August 2019.

15 Personal interview with a woman in her thirties who grew up in Porshinev, Dushanbe, August 2019.

16 Personal interview with a 24-year-old man who grew up and lives in Khorog, Khorog, August 2019.

17 Personal interview with a 24-year-old man who grew up and lives in Khorog, Khorog, August 2019.

18 Personal interview with a 50-year-old woman who grew up in Tem, Dushanbe, August 2019.

19 Categorizing Pamiri languages is a difficult task as a common discourse amongst linguists does not exist, and neither does one within Pamiri communities themselves. What is certain is that these languages all differ from Tajik. For more details, see Hermann Kreutzmann, Pamirian Crossroads, p. 484–485.

20 Personal interview with two men from Porshinev in their thirties, Dushanbe, July 2019.

21 Personal interview with a 50-year-old woman who grew up in Tem, Dushanbe, August 2019.

22 Kulob is located in the Khatlon province.

23 Personal interview with a 24-year-old man who grew up and lives in Khorog, Khorog, August 2019.


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