Central Asian governments are already on heightened alert over the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. This sense of alarm is almost certain to increase in coming months. But in Turkmenistan there does not seem to be the same concern heard in the neighboring Central Asian states. Ashgabat seems content to rely on strategies from the 1990s to avoid future security problems emanating from Afghanistan. But a lot has changed since then and Turkmenistan could now be the most likely Central Asia state to face instability.
Officials in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan have for many months been expressing concerns about the situation in neighboring Afghanistan after foreign forces there complete their drastic troop reductions at the end of 2014. They are worried about what happens when Afghan government forces assume responsibility for security. All four countries have been regularly conducting military/counterterrorism exercises for months now.
Not Turkmenistan. Ashgabat has not shown any particular distress about the impending changes in Afghanistan, a country with which Turkmenistan shares a 744-kilometer border.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s government seems confident the same tactics that got Turkmenistan through the turbulent period of the late 1990s, when the Taliban arrived at Central Asia’s borders, will help the country avoid any unpleasant fallout from Afghan hostilities.
Turkmen authorities have already reached out to ethnic Turkmen leaders in northern Afghanistan, in the Faryab and Jowzjan provinces that border Turkmenistan. A group of clerics from Afghanistan just met with Turkmen officials, including deputy Foreign Minister Wepa Hojiev, sometime after the start of February. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, learned about this from members of the Turkmen government’s delegation, though the meeting was not reported by state media. Among the Afghan clerics were some who are known to have had ties with the Taliban in the past. The Turkmen government has reportedly also been sending food and other basic goods to the area recently and is providing (intermittent) very cheap electricity to these neighboring regions.
When the Taliban took control over most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Turkmenistan’s government did not oppose the Taliban as the other Central Asian states did. Ashgabat did not officially recognize the Taliban government but did allow a Taliban representative office to open in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan hosted Afghan peace talks in 1999. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar threatened the other four Central Asian states, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, for what he claimed was meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs. No Taliban threats were ever made against Turkmenistan.
In April 2013, the fiercest fighting in more than a decade broke out in the southern Qaysar district of Afghanistan’s Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan. Afghan media reported a nine-day battle between Afghan government forces and some 700 Taliban fighters. Government forces drove them out but in September fighting erupted there again. One of the reported casualties was a Taliban shadow governor from another district of Faryab Province.
RFE/RL correspondents based in Afghanistan tell Azatlyk there are already "no go" zones under Taliban control in Faryab and Jowzjan provinces. These correspondents report an increasing number of Afghanistan’s ethnic Turkmen arming themselves, and some joining the Taliban or foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks allied with the Taliban.
One correspondent reported a "pro-Taliban" group captured a village in Jowzjan Province along the border with Turkmenistan some three months ago. Government forces arrived and chased the group from the village. The group, reportedly mainly ethnic Turkmen led by ethnic Uzbeks, found sanctuary on an island in the Amu-Darya, the river dividing Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, before gradually fading away back into Afghanistan.
Such a group would surely have been attacked by border guards in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, but apparently not by border guards in Turkmenistan.
So the Taliban are at or near Turkmenistan’s border already and maybe, as before, won’t bother a neighbor who is neutral, or at least not openly hostile.
But it’s the Turkmen of Turkmenistan that Ashgabat needs to worry about now.
As noted, there are now pro-Taliban Turkmen in Afghanistan, but Turkmen from Turkmenistan are showing up alongside militants in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Syria. An Afghan Turkmen in Pakistan’s tribal area told Azatlyk there are Turkmen nationals among militant groups in Pakistan.
A video appeared on YouTube
last June showing four militants captured in fighting in Syria who claimed they were from Turkmenistan. Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassun said last October there were some 360 citizens of Turkmenistan fighting alongside "mercenaries" in his country.
Russian security forces detained 15 members of the banned Takfir Wal-Hijra group in Moscow last November; among them were citizens of Turkmenistan.
It’s people like these Ashgabat needs to keep from crossing the Afghan border into Turkmenistan. Several incidents in the 1990s indicate this will be difficult.
Some 800 Afghan refugees fled several kilometers into Turkmenistan during fighting in late 1996, several thousand crossed well into Turkmenistan in June 1997. In August 2000, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted unnamed Russian military officials as saying militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were crossing from Afghanistan through Turkmenistan to reach Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan’s security forces are accustomed to dealing with a cowed population, people beaten down by the regime for more than two decades. They do not dare to oppose the government.
It is unclear how Turkmen security forces would react faced with a determined, well-trained, armed group set on causing chaos. It is also unclear what support the Turkmen government could expect from the country’s people should militants appear in Turkmenistan.
Qishloq Ovozi asked Matthew Clements of "IHS Jane's" for a brief assessment and he offered the following comments and raised another important point: “the capacity of the Turkmen security/military forces is very low. And because they are outside regional security structures like the CSTO, they don't have the same levels of Russian backing. So it's not unfeasible to think that they could be targeted, and subsequently struggle to respond.”
Turkmenistan, a UN-recognized neutral nation, does not have defense agreements with other countries. If attacked or facing challenges at the hands of an internal enemy, there is no one Ashgabat can call upon for immediate help.
What would be the reaction from neighbors Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Iran? Or from Russia with its long historical interest in Turkmenistan?
-- Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Bruce Pannier