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Qishloq Ovozi

A migrating bank of the Amu-Darya river
Long-awaited help has been promised for the Turkmen of the Qarqeen area in northern Afghanistan and RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, can claim some credit for that.

Azatlyk recently did extensive reporting on the plight of Turkmen on the Afghan side of the border, their problems with militants, with Turkmenistan’s border guards, and security forces, and with the river that divides the Turkmen people.

The appeals from the people of Qarqeen district in Jowzjan Province had previously gone unheeded, especially those being made to their neighbors -- the ethnic Turkmen of Turkmenistan.

The governor of Afghanistan’s northern Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan, contacted Azatlyk to say he had been in touch with officials from Turkmenistan.

Speaking to Azatlyk by telephone on April 3, Governor Baymyrat Goyunly said Turkmenistan’s consul-general contacted him a few days earlier. The official told the governor that a team from Turkmenistan would be sent to assess how best to solve one of Qarqeen’s biggest problems -- the migrating river.

The flow of that river, the Amu-Darya, has been eating away the bank on the Afghan side of the border for decades, extending Turkmenistan’s territory at the expense of the people in the Qarqeen district.

Qarqeen’s Turkmen told Azatlyk in February and March that they hoped Turkmenistan would renew help to reinforce the Afghan bank of the Amu-Darya and stop the loss of precious Afghan agricultural land.

Turkmenistan suspended such help several years ago and the results have been disastrous for Qarqeen’s residents, many of whom have fled farther south into the inhospitable desert.

Goyunly said he requested the consul-general to send the team from Turkmenistan to Qarqeen and the Khamyab district to the west, where the situation is the same, after the April 5 presidential election.

Azatlyk’s correspondent in Jowzjan reported another positive development.

The "mistreated" Afghan Turkmen also complained just last month to Azatlyk that they were in danger of being beaten, detained, or imprisoned by Turkmenistan’s border guards and security forces if they went to the islands that have emerged in the Amu-Darya as the river has shifted. The Afghan Turkmen wish to graze their cattle on these islands, which they say was once part of Afghanistan and where their villages were located.

Azatlyk’s Jowzjan correspondent reported that Turkmenistan’s border guards have recently given Afghan Turkmen permission to graze their cattle on the islands with the understanding they cannot set foot on Turkmenistan’s bank of the Amu-Darya.

This sudden change in the situation along the Turkmen-Afghan border came after Afghan President Hamid Karzai hosted a Norouz celebration in Kabul on March 26.

Several regional leaders attended. Turkmenistan was represented by longtime Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov. The Afghan Turkmen sent a delegation of 50 elders, including some elders from Qarqeen, to meet with Meredov in Kabul.

Sources who attended the talks told Azatlyk that Meredov promised those Turkmen elders that Turkmenistan would help them construct barriers along the river bank.

Obviously a huge amount of credit for the change in fortune of Qarqeen’s Turkmen goes to these elders who made the long trip to the capital.

But Governor Goyunly said the first phone call he made after speaking with Turkmenistan’s general consul was a latenight conversation with the Azatlyk correspondent who has been instrumental in getting the region’s story out to the world.

And the governor was happy to speak by phone with Azatlyk in Prague a couple of days later to answer some follow-up questions.

And of course, we here at RFE/RL in Prague know some of Turkmenistan’s government officials have been listening to us, and keeping track of what we say, for many years now.* So someone in Ashgabat has undoubtedly heard what Azatlyk has been reporting recently about the ethnic Turkmen in Jowzjan, Faryab, and Baghdis provinces.

Now the wait begins to see if promises become reality. But at least the people in Qarqeen district have hope that their most basic wishes might soon come true.

-- Bruce Pannier with contributions from Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service

Good-Bye, Manas

U.S. servicemen carry bags as they dismantle a tent camp at the U.S. transit center at Manas on March 6.
It is now less than 100 days until the United States' presence at the Manas Airport in Bishkek comes to an end. After more than 12 years, the departure of U.S. troops is a symbolic moment in the larger drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan and, according to some, a reduced U.S. interest in Central Asia.

In recognition, I want to take a look at what has changed in Kyrgyzstan in the time that U.S. troops have been stationed at Manas and what the people of Kyrgyzstan have learned -- or at least believe -- about the United States, having hosted those foreign servicemen and -women.

The first U.S. troops arrived at Manas International Airport in December 2001 and the American flag has been flying discreetly there ever since. Tens of thousands of service personnel from more than a dozen countries have since gone through Manas on their way to and from Afghanistan.

Some warplanes have landed there, such as the French Mirage 2000D fighters in February 2002. But the planes coming and going from Manas have primarily been military cargo and transport planes, as a result of the agreement with the Kyrgyz government that only nonlethal cargo would transit the base.
ALSO READ: Kyrgyz President Says 'No New Base' At Manas (in Russian)

When the first troops arrived, Askar Akaev was Kyrgyzstan’s president. He was ousted during widespread protests in March 2005 and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was chased from power during unrest in April 2010. Roza Otunbaeva became interim president and just weeks later there were interethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead, thousands injured, and briefly displaced many thousands of people.

These turbulent events received added attention in the United States in no small part due to the presence of a U.S. base there. And while those events might have cast Kyrgyzstan in an unflattering light, a little more than a year after the ethnic violence Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to see a peaceful transfer of power when Almazbek Atambaev was elected president.

U.S. troops at the Manas base continued to perform their duties through all of these changes.

There were several reported plots to sabotage the Manas base, but Kyrgyz authorities claimed they foiled all these in the planning stages.

There were some unfortunate incidents also. Plane fuel was dumped over civilian areas on at least two occasions drawing the ire of locals. A U.S. KC-135 tanker plane crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan in May 2013.

A U.S. soldier killed a civilian employee at Manas in December 2006. Prior to that a U.S. servicewoman briefly went missing, and some U.S. servicemen had run-ins with locals in Bishkek.

Protests followed many of these incidents. There were also times when various political groups rallied against the U.S. presence at Manas.

Surprisingly, the presence of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan has left a very light footprint in the country. Operations have been confined to Manas. U.S. troops have not used any other bases in Kyrgyzstan despite rumors from time to time of a “southern” base being planned.

Certainly, many citizens of Kyrgyzstan can now claim to have seen Americans, either service personnel or those U.S. citizens who have followed the troops there for various reasons. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan beckon to all and my countrymen and countrywomen have followed the call into the Tien-Shan and Pamir.

Since I traveled all over Kyrgyzstan during the 1990s, I can appreciate this difference. Twenty years ago, I was almost always the first American anyone in Kyrgyzstan had seen. It is nothing like that today.

However, preconceived notions live on, and my travels in Kyrgyzstan between 2006 and 2010 showed me that some ideas have not changed, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan.

I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, looking for ousted President Bakiev, who had fled to his native area of Teyit just outside Jalal-Abad.

He was due to speak on the central square in Jalal-Abad, right by the administration building. I was there waiting and people came up to me and asked, was I American? Several times the next question was "Is it true U.S. Special Forces are coming to capture Bakiev and take him to Bishkek?"

Even when I told them that was not going to happen, no one believed me entirely. I could tell by the way they looked at me, they simply believed I was protecting my own people.

Better was the young Uzbek man who approached me at dinner, the night before Bakiev left Kyrgyzstan for good.

“How long will U.S. troops stay in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked me.

“When we’re done in Afghanistan, we’ll leave Kyrgyzstan,” I said.

“No,” the Uzbek man replied. “U.S. soldiers never leave any place once they set up a base, not unless they are kicked out,” he clarified.

I mentioned the Philippines, Panama, told him about scaling back troop levels in Europe and South Korea -- but he wasn’t buying any of it.

I’d had similar conversations before. The most memorable was with a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, also in southern Kyrgyzstan, in 2006.

I had arranged an interview. I wanted to know about the Hizb ut-Tahrir plan for Central Asia. He was very polite, though many of his answers seemed like verses he had memorized (I had no idea they identified so closely with the story of Moses and the Pharaoh).

I finished my questions. Is that it? he asked. I said "yes," and he immediately said he had questions for me.

And he did.

Wasn’t it true that Kyrgyzstan is just a stepping-stone for U.S. conquest in Central Asia? How many more U.S. troops would be coming to Kyrgyzstan? Wasn’t it true that the United States wished to subjugate Muslims? And on, and on.

So once the U.S. troops pack up the last of their prefabricated buildings and the last military cargo planes take off from Manas, the majority of people in Kyrgyzstan will remain with essentially the same ideas about who Americans are and what they want.

A scrap from my memory book.

The first time I landed at Manas was early August 1992, when it was still the Bishkek International Airport. I arrived from Tashkent. What I remember most was the line of biplanes along the airport fence to the left of the terminal as you disembarked from the plane. All through the 1990s, they were there when I arrived at the airport.

Those vintage aircraft were the source of more than one joke about Kyrgyzstan’s air force.

But I always thought about the people who were lucky enough to fly them. It must have been magnificent to fly slowly into the mountains in one of those on a summer day, a temporary escape from the Soviet Union for those few moments when all one could see was the mountains all around.

The first time I flew into Manas after U.S. troops arrived, all the biplanes were gone.

-- 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.

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