Accessibility links

Breaking News

Qishloq Ovozi

An ethnic Turkmen who is reportedly leading a militia against the Taliban in Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province

The Taliban has overrun Afghanistan’s Khamyab District and is now Turkmenistan’s immediate neighbor.

Turkmenistan’s border runs along the western, northwestern, and northeastern sides of Khamyab. Turkmenistan’s border guards and security forces have been building walls, digging ditches, and establishing new border posts across the border from Khamyab since early October.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke with Fakir Muhammad Jowzjani, the chief of police for Jowzjan Province where the Khamyab District is located.

Jowzjani said, “Our soldiers went there to take on the Taliban in Khamyab. There was fighting against the Taliban, but our forces were compelled to withdraw. When the soldiers were returning to [the provincial capital] Sheberghan, they came across the Taliban, who were waiting for them, and the soldiers came under attack again.”

Jowzjani said the district counterterrorism chief and two other soldiers were killed in the ambush.

Gaffar, the commander of the local Arbaky force, the civil militia, said his forces also had to retreat from the district.

“The security forces came to Khamyab and we joined them and advanced on several villages. We faced resistance and the soldiers withdrew,” commander Gaffar said. “I did also at the suggestion of the security forces and now I’m in Sheberghan."

Gaffar told Azatlyk he had taken all his fighters with him, effectively leaving the district to the Taliban.

Gaffar said the Taliban had brought up extra fighters from the Akcha district for the assault on Khamyab.

“I had no support,” Gaffar said. “The government force did not stay, so I had to retreat.”

Another Arbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who has featured in several "Qishloq Ovozi" reports, confirmed Khamyab has fallen. Gurbandurdy, an ethnic Turkmen, commands the Arbaky force in Qarqeen district, which borders Khamyab.

Gurbandurdy said, “The situation in Khamyab has seriously deteriorated. The number of Taliban has increased and they now set the rules in the area.”

And those rules are all too familiar.

One woman, whose name we will not reveal, recounted her story to Azatlyk. This woman was a doctor at a hospital in Khamyab until the Taliban started taking villages in the district. She started receiving phone calls.

“We are the Taliban,” the callers said, then warned her that they did not want female doctors at the hospital.

The callers said she could stay in Khamyab district but that she was not to practice medicine. She fled to Mazar-e Sharif.

A schoolteacher still in the district said he also received phone calls from people identifying themselves as the Taliban. These callers told him the local school principal, who was a woman, had to quit and that all female teachers had to, as well.

The outlying villages in Khamyab are so close to Turkmenistan’s border that border guards from the neighboring country would cross into Khamyab to buy cucumbers and tomatoes.

Khamyab is not the only trouble spot by Turkmenistan’s border.

To the west of Jowzjan, in Faryab Province, violence continues in Qaysar district. A local Arbaky chief, "Boby Commander," said Taliban militants captured the village of Shor in November.

The governor of Faryab Province, Mahmadulla Vatas, told Azatlyk in August that the Taliban was more active and more numerous in his province recently. But Vatas said many of those in the ranks of the Taliban in Faryab were Chechens and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Emphasizing the precarious situation in Faryab, the provincial intelligence chief was assassinated, most believe by the Taliban, shortly after Vatas spoke to Azatlyk.

Turkmenistan’s government has done very little, and at times almost nothing, to counter this growing security problem south of its border, despite having three border guards and three soldiers killed along the Afghan frontier this year, the most recorded since 1991 independence. The attempt by Turkmenistan’s authorities to court better ties with neighboring areas in Afghanistan, home to mainly ethnic Turkmen, was short lived and by early autumn the government seems to have settled on defensive barriers and fortified posts to contain Afghanistan’s problems.

The result is that, for the first time since late 2001, the Taliban is Turkmenistan’s neighbor again, at least in Khamyab district.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir and Azatlyk correspondent Sahra Ghulam Nabi. Special thanks to the correspondents in Jowzjan, Faryab, Baghdis, and Herat provinces, who are bringing this information to the world

A gas-processing plant at Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan (file photo)

Turkmenistan has the fourth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and during the last nearly quarter of a century has never been able to sell more than a fraction of this hydrocarbon wealth. In fact, Turkmenistan is losing the few customers it does have.

Russia's recent announcement to suspend the South Stream gas pipeline project leaves Europe short 63 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas it expected to have just a few years from now. It opens new possibilities for the European Union's Southern Gas Corridor project and the EU hopes Turkmen gas will be a key supplier to the project.

So as Turkmenistan mulls a future with potentially only one customer for its gas, the Turkmen government is pursuing the realization of two old pipeline projects that could take large volumes of Turkmen gas to huge markets. But each of these projects has its unique challenges.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, conducted a roundtable (audio below) to discuss Turkmenistan's current situation, whether the recent decision to suspend Russia's proposed South Stream gas pipeline could mean Turkmen gas would finally reach Europe, and what other options Turkmenistan has to prevent becoming dependent on China as its sole gas customer.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated a discussion on that topic. Participating on the panel were Dr. Luca Anceschi, lecturer at the Central Asia Studies Department at the University of Glasgow and author of many articles on Central Asia, including the recent "Turkmenistan's Neutrality in Post-Crimea Eurasia"; Salihe Kaya, researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research in Ankara and co-author of "Energy Supply Security and the Southern Gas Corridor"; and I simply had to say a few things also.

Anceschi summed up the situation succinctly by saying, "At the moment the geopolitics of Eurasia gas is going through a time of extreme fluidity..."

Western sanctions on Russia, the European Union's largest supplier of gas, have sent EU officials scurrying to identify new gas suppliers. Some have criticized the EU in the past for articulating the Southern Gas Corridor policy, then doing little to push the idea forward. There appears to be more political will in the EU now to see progress on connecting Caspian Basin energy resources to Europe.

Azerbaijan is already pledged as a gas supplier to the EU and, once built, in 2018, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will carry Azerbaijani gas from the Turkish border through Greece and Albania, and across the Adriatic to Italy. That would only be some 20 bcm when fully operational, so more pipelines and more gas are still needed.

Kaya pointed out, "Turkmenistan appears willing to play a key actor of natural gas resources. The European countries want to reduce their dependence on Russian gas of course, and Turkmenistan wants to export gas to European countries."

With Iran out of the formula due to international sanctions on the Islamic Republic, bringing gas from Turkmenistan to Europe requires construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline to connect Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan.

The idea has been around since the mid-1990s. Azatlyk contacted Sabit Bagirov, the former president of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), after the announcement of the suspension of South Stream. Bagirov said that cancellation of the Russian project was a "huge" opportunity for building the Trans-Caspian pipeline.

But Anceschi noted that the unclear legal status of the Caspian Sea remains, as it has for more than two decades, a major hurdle to building the Trans-Caspian. The five littoral states have not been able to agree on whether the Caspian should be designated a sea or a lake. It makes a great difference in how the Caspian's resources, and profits, are divided.

Two of the Caspian littoral states -- Russia and Iran -- object to the pipeline's construction until the sea's legal status is agreed upon by all five littoral states (Kazakhstan being the fifth). Moscow and Tehran have also raised environmental concerns in their objection to the pipeline plan.

Bagirov said these objections were not valid since the pipeline would run along the parts of the Caspian that belong to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and he mentioned Russia has already built a pipeline across the Black Sea (Blue Stream) to Turkey under much more challenging conditions than those in the Caspian Sea and so far without any environmental problems.

Concerning Russian and Iranian opposition to the Trans-Caspian, Kaya said that "there are no rules about this, there's just policy."

Anceschi drew attention to visits during the past month by European leaders to Central Asian Caspian states -- Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to Turkmenistan and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman and French President Francois Hollande to Kazakhstan -- as a possible signal Europe in launching its offensive to get commitments from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to supply the Southern Corridor.

Kaya said Turkey has already shown its interest as a transit country for Central Asian energy supplies. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) will connect Azerbaijan to the TAP pipeline. And Ankara, which stands to benefit from transit fees, has voiced support for the Trans-Caspian pipeline.

Of course, that was before Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Ankara at the start of December.

Turkmenistan's other option is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. The advantage TAPI has is that all the governments involved are pushing to see it realized and construction is tentatively due to start next year. And as Anceschi pointed out, "there have been a number of discussions about the actual establishment of the consortium, there is some agreement on the route and there is also a fairly stable agreement on the pricing procedure and on the payment procedure...."

The biggest obstacle to TAPI is of course the security situation in Afghanistan (the pipeline is due to pass near Kandahar, for example) and in Pakistan's Baluchistan region.

The panelists agreed for TAPI to be built deals would have to be made with local leaders, in some cases warlords, and such agreements are tenuous at best.

However, Turkmenistan's need to find a new export route for its gas is becoming critical. Russia is facing a glut of gas due to reduced purchases in Europe and has recently canceled its contracts for importing Central Asian gas. Turkmen gas exports to Russia were greatly reduced in recent years, down from a high of 45-50 bcm to 11 bcm, but still enough to bring several billion dollars in sales.

Turkmenistan's sales to Iran, never even 8 bcm, are in danger after Tehran signaled earlier this year that its expanding internal pipeline network and increased domestic production would mitigate the need to import gas from its neighbor in the near future.

That leaves Turkmenistan with only China as a buyer. China has agreed to purchase some 65 bcm of gas annually, a sizable amount. But the China-Turkmen gas deal is extremely opaque. Such reports as there have been cite figures of $250 per 1,000 cubic meters down to $195, the latter representing roughly half of current world market prices. And since gas prices follows oil with a lag of some three to six months, gas prices should drop by one-third in the first quarter of 2015.

please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:43:13 0:00
Direct link

-- Bruce Pannier

Follow Dr. Luca Anceschi: @anceschistan

Salihe Kaya: @salihekaya

Muhammad Tahir: @tahirmuh

Azatlyk: @azathabar

Load more

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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.