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Qishloq Ovozi

Kyrgyz border guards lack the funding of their Uzbek counterparts and the experience of their Tajik counterparts.
At a February 14 session of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh, deputy Irina Karamushkina questioned the choice of transportation the government planned to purchase for the Border Guard Service to use for patrolling the country's mainly mountainous frontiers.

"Why has it been decided to buy bicycles, not horses, for border guards to patrol the border?" Karamushkina asked. "Horses are more suitable for such terrain as ours," she added.

At that point, fellow deputy Erkin Sakebaev said, "If horses are bought for these border guards, then they will eat them."

Sakebaev had a point to his cold humor. "This is because only 60 soms [about $1.16] a day is allocated for food provisions for them," he added.

It's an interesting comment considering Kyrgyzstan's border guards are tasked with defending the frontier against militants who have trained at terrorist camps abroad, the sort many believe will be making their way into Central Asia from Afghanistan in the coming years.

They are also expected to apprehend smugglers, often narcotics smugglers who might be armed but probably at least have sufficient funds to offer hungry border guards enough money to buy some good dinners in exchange for looking the other way for a few seconds.

Kyrgyz border guards are unlikely to get much help from the guards on the other side of the border. Kyrgyz border guards have exchanged fire with their Uzbek and Tajik counterparts a few dozen times over the last decade and there have been fatalities.

Just last month there were two serious incidents along Kyrgyzstan's borders -- one that saw five Kyrgyz border guards in the south wounded in a shoot-out with Tajik border guards and another that resulted in one Kyrgyz border guard wounded and 11 intruders from China killed in the country's northeast.

The duty is hard and, as Sakebaev noted, the reward is not great. And the meager food budget is only one of the difficulties of life in the border guards.

Before moving to comments from Kyrgyz officials about the state of the border guards, I wanted to add some personal comments about who the border guards are.

I've had many chances to speak with the border guards of all the Central Asian countries, sometimes even of my own volition. Central Asian border guards in general tend to be rural kids and most are stationed in areas well away from their homes. They are usually in their late teens or early 20s. Depending on the size of the post there might be as many as three older, low-ranking officers who are in charge. They're the ones who always check my documents. Very often there aren't many signs of civilization near border posts areas, maybe a few villages. There is not much to do during free time.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Azattyk, contacted the Border Guard Service find out some things about the guards, like how much the job pays.

Border Guard Service spokeswoman Gulmira Borubaeva told Azattyk the average border guard earns some 10,000 to 12,000 soms per month (some $200 to $230). Officers and contract servicemen can earn 15,000 soms or more, and those serving in remote mountainous areas get additional pay. Borubaeva said the guards' wages had been increased twice recently.

That's actually not bad money in Kyrgyzstan, but it doesn't seem to attract enough candidates.

Last November, parliament member Asiya Sasykbaeva told parliament there were 300 vacancies in border guards in the southern Batken Province, which borders Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. She cited the low wage of (then) 8,000 soms (about $165) as being the reason.

Zakir Tilenov was the border guards' commander from 2006 until 2013 and was a career border guard. The "Vecherny Bishkek" newspaper published an interview with Tilenov in late May 2011, in which he said: "I will say honestly that in some places the recruits leave much to be desired. But we have to use the available resources. Most of the conscripts have not completed their secondary education." The border-guard commander continued, "There are some underweight young men among them, with various diseases that do not allow them to serve in the army, and those who require special additional training."

In August that same year, Tilenov said the suicide rate among border guards was increasing.

I wrote earlier about Central Asia's borders and mentioned Tilenov's comments that Kyrgyz border troops were greatly outnumbered by the border guards of neighboring states. I'll add that their Uzbek counterparts are much better funded and their Tajik counterparts have vast experience in border shoot-outs, which are weekly occurrences along the Tajik-Afghan frontier.

So, if the Kyrgyz border guards received horses, and ate one, it would not be a big surprise. Kyrgyz culture does not have an inhibition toward consuming horse meat. The Kyrgyz eat horse, and I've sat down and eaten it with them (and a welcome break it was for me after weeks in a row of mutton for breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

What the border guards really need is better funding and training, but Kyrgyzstan's cash-strapped government is in no position to give them that. Right after Sakebaev made his comments, Defense Minister Taalaybek Omuraliev addressed parliament on the shortage of funds for the armed forces.

-- Bruce Pannier, with Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
Foreign troops are expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
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

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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.