Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Peace Talks With The Taliban In Turkmenistan?

Taliban fighters pose with weapons as they sit in a room at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in April 2011.
Taliban fighters pose with weapons as they sit in a room at an undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan in April 2011.
When it comes to hosting possible peace talks with the Taliban, a number of countries have surfaced as possible venues. Those mentioned so far include: Pakistan, the Maldives, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Germany.

But now a ranking member of the Afghan High Peace Council, Mullah Jora Akhund, has added a new name to the bunch. He even describes it as "one of the most promising."

It's Turkmenistan.

Akhund, who had already traveled on the council's behalf to Pakistan and Turkey, says that the Afghan delegation's visit last week to Turkmenistan was one of the most positive so far. During its talks with Turkmen officials, he says, "The Turkmen side expressed its readiness to do everything in its capacity to help Afghanistan achieve peace."

There has been plenty of speculation lately about possible talks with the Taliban. Last week, the German newsmagazine "Der Spiegel" revealed that some sort of discussions between mid-level U.S. diplomats and a Taliban representative have taken place in Germany.

Turkmenistan has one advantage, notes Akhund: "This is a neutral state; they will only provide us with space and won't intervene in the discussions." Unlike NATO members Germany and Turkey, Turkmenistan hasn't sent any troops to Afghanistan. That could make it a more attractive spot for talks.

Turkmenistan also hosts a regional United Nations office, which might help. It is also a neighbor of Afghanistan, which might facilitate travel for Taliban leaders.

Most importantly, Turkmenistan had good relations with the Taliban in the days when they were in power in Kabul.

Ex-Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Shaikhmuradov reportedly made several trips to Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power to negotiate the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline (TAPI). In exchange in the 1990s, Taliban officials have paid several visits to Turkmenistan in which they held talks with Turkmen officials on topics of mutual interest.

The history of that friendly relationship has its darker facets. In the 1990s, ethnic Turkmen from Afghanistan who were fighting against the Taliban advance poured over the border to escape Taliban atrocities. Turkmen authorities forcibly returned them to the Taliban, where many of them -- including the brother of religious leader Abdul Kerim Makhdum -- were killed.

And that, perhaps, brings up a potential problem: Turkmenistan remains a tightly controlled dictatorship. It is one of the least accessible countries on earth. It is hard to get in and even harder to leave -- no matter what sort of passport you are carrying.

One can't help but wonder whether Ashgabat would relax such deeply ingrained bureaucratic controls just for the sake of peace talks.

-- Muhammad Tahir
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