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Neutral Turkmenistan Chooses A Side In Afghan Conflict

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered unprecedented snap military exercises at the end of March.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered unprecedented snap military exercises at the end of March.

Turkmenistan's official policy of "positive neutrality" appears to have been slightly punctured, and the source of this perforation is Afghanistan.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, interviewed Allaberen Karyadar from the Fayzabad district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province. He had returned recently to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. In fact, he came back earlier than planned "because the Taliban were attacking my village."

Karyadar added, "I came back and drove the Taliban out."

Driving the Taliban out is Karyadar's job. He is a commander of a local "Arbaky" force -- nominally, pro-government paramilitaries or local militias. There are mixed feelings about these groups inside Afghanistan.

So what was Arbaky commander Karyadar doing in Turkmenistan?

"I spent some days in the hospital, being treated by doctors," Karyadar said. He said he was not always at the hospital, though. He said he spent some time visiting "with friends" and, of course, there are some Afghan Turkmen now living in Turkmenistan.

Karyadar said he was in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, for "eye treatment." He was able to obtain a visa for the visit (and that is a very difficult feat, usually). The visa and the medical care were free.

And Karyadar was not the only person from Jowzjan who was in Turkmenistan. Karyadar said he "heard" the Qarqeen district police chief "Ayub" and another Arkbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who we've met before in the Qishloq, were also in Turkmenistan. Also reportedly in Turkmenistan was another Arbaky commander from Jowzjan, Sapar Ra'is, and Rozi Bay, the police commander responsible for the highway that runs between Jowzjan and Faryab Province to the west.

Jowzjan borders Turkmenistan. The northern most part of the province actually protrudes into Turkmenistan and therefore is bounded by Turkmenistan on three sides.

Turkmenistan has so far attempted to avoid getting involved in Afghanistan's problems as much as possible. Turkmen officials have brought up the country's UN-recognized neutral status when speaking about the subject of Afghanistan. This shield of neutrality worked in the 1990s. It appears to have worked more recently, at least once, when some 70 to 80 armed Taliban met Turkmen border guards on an island in Amu-Darya in October 2015. On that occasion, the Turkmen border guards told the Taliban fighters they could come no further because Turkmenistan was a neutral country.

The Taliban respected the status that time. But in 2014, armed militants crossed the border into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in February and three soldiers in May.

The Alternative Turkmenistan News website reported on June 8 that the bodies of 27 Turkmen border guards had been brought to the capitals of the Mary and Lebap provinces at the start of May for relatives to collect and bury. According to the report, which is not possible to confirm due to the opaque nature of the Turkmen government, the Defense Ministry told the parents of one of the soldiers that their son had committed suicide. The parents reportedly opened the coffin and found their son's body with 17 bullet wounds.

And Sergei Shoigu made the first visit ever to Turkmenistan by a Russian defense minister on June 8. Russian media reported that Turkmenistan agreed to accept Russian help with training and to purchase weapons from Russia. Turkmenistan had long held out against taking any Russian help and, in fact, Ashgabat continues to insist publicly that there is no problem along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Ashgabat has also never confirmed reports about a mass call-up of reserves or the deployment of some 70 percent of the country's troops and equipment to the Afghan border area.

Turkmen media did widely report on the unprecedented snap military exercises President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered at the end of March. Those drills lasted well into April.

And that brings us back to Allaberen Karyadar and what he and other Arbaky commanders and Jowzjan police officials were doing in Turkmenistan recently.

If border security has so deteriorated that Turkmen troops are again being killed, it explains why the Afghan Turkmen from a district along Turkmenistan's border are "visiting" their northern neighbor. It also explains Shoigu's visit.

It seems Turkmenistan's hand is being forced here. And judging from the visit by Karyadar and the others, Ashgabat is finally taking a side in the conflict just over the border.

Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality might be one of the latest casualties of the Afghan conflict.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.