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Ethnic Turkmen Battle Militants In Northern Afghanistan
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For more than three years now, Qishloq Ovozi and the Majlis podcast have been following events in northern Afghanistan, in the provinces that border Central Asia, while the situation there went from concerning to unstable.

This reporting benefited greatly from the work and dedication of one person, Shamerdanguly Myrady, one of our correspondents in Afghanistan.

At significant personal risk, he has been making trips to northwest Afghanistan, his native area, to report on events as the situation there deteriorated. He just went again.

Myrady spent a week in Balkh, Jowzjan, and Sari Pul provinces at the start of May, and this is some of what he reported to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk.

Myrady said there were many armed groups operating in northwestern Afghanistan -- "just in the Shortepa district, there are at least 10 [different] groups."

Shortepa is in the northwest corner of Balkh Province and it borders Uzbekistan. The people of Shortepa, an area with a mainly ethnic Turkmen population, told Myrady the Taliban and militants from the Islamic State extremist group were operating in the district. Locals also said some of the militants were from north of the border, from Central Asia.

Myrady met a man in Shortepa who called himself "commander" Abdul Menan, the leader of one of the local "uprising" militias. Speaking about the militants, Menan said, "Just in our area they killed at least 27 men and two women."

Menan said that despite appeals to the authorities, no help had arrived. "No other choice remained to us," he said, "other than selling our property -- carpets, cows -- to buy weapons and attack" the militants.

Myrady said that in conversations with people around the three provinces it became clear local militias were being formed in many areas.

The 209th Corps, or Shaheen Corps, is responsible for northern Afghanistan. The 209th is stretched thin and that is the reason militant groups have been able to bring so many districts in northern Afghanistan at least partially under their control.

Some people told Myrady the attack on the Shaheen Corps base in Mazar-e Sharif on April 22 that left more than 130 soldiers dead shattered the confidence of many people that government forces could protect them.

This has led to an increase of paramilitary formations in the area, such as Menan's group. Myrady said that based on what people told him, it seems paramilitary groups such as the Arbaky are now doing most of the fighting in districts away from the provincial capitals.

The lack of government control has other consequences. Myrady said there was more opium poppy cultivation in northwest Afghanistan than any time he could remember.

According to a 2016 UN report, Badghis Province, which borders Turkmenistan, is the second-largest producer of opium poppies among Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Badghis is west of Jowzjan and Balkh.

People Myrady encountered told stories of vehicles being stopped by Taliban fighters and some people being taken away, of insurgents that locals described as "Daesh" or IS militants beheading locals.

There were also tales about the Taliban collecting money from villagers for electricity supplied by Turkmenistan, or simply collecting "zakat," or taxes, from locals.

Myrady said it appeared small bazaars selling weapons and narcotics are operating in some districts of northwestern Afghanistan where militants are in control, including districts on the border with Turkmenistan.

Myrady's reporting sheds some small light on the dire situation in northwestern Afghanistan. Recent reports on fighting in northern Afghanistan came from battlefields in Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces, in northeastern Afghanistan, along the border with Tajikistan.

The situation appears no better in northwestern Afghanistan, it just doesn't get reported, which makes Myrady's trips all the more important.

Toymyrat Bugaev from Azatlyk contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Kazakhstan is reportedly not keen on the timing of the cuts, as its massive Caspian offshore field, Kashagan, has just started producing oil.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are sending representatives to Vienna on May 24-25 for a meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC oil exporters. (They are, of course, in the latter group.)

The meeting will consider further production cuts to try to boost the price of oil on world markets.

Both Astana and Ashgabat would also enjoy seeing the price of oil rise, but their envoys will come to the meeting with significantly different positions.

Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbaev confirmed on May 15 that Kazakhs would attend the Vienna meeting. Astana was represented at a similar meeting in December 2016 at which the group first agreed to cut production. Bozumbaev said at that time that Kazakhstan would reduce oil output by 20,000 barrels a day (bbl/d) from its average of some 1.5 million bbl/d.

But Kazakhstan reportedly was not keen on the timing of the cuts.

After more than a decade of delays, Kazakhstan's massive Caspian offshore field, Kashagan, had just started producing oil in the summer of 2016, and Bozumbaev indicated Kashagan would be excluded from any production cuts.

Kazakh authorities were relying on volumes from Kashagan to compensate for the drastic fall in oil prices, which played a huge role in the economic problems Kazakhstan experienced in 2016.

Bozumbaev said on the eve of the December 2016 meeting that Kazakhstan planned for oil production to reach 85 million tons, nearly 10 million tons more than 2016 (though still the figure for output for 2014).

In his May 15 announcement that Kazakhstan would attend the Vienna meeting, Bozumbaev said, "We will hold talks...[on] the role Kazakhstan will play in this agreement [for further oil cuts]." But he warned Kazakhstan would not "automatically" join decisions OPEC or other exporters made.

Interestingly, on May 16, Kazakh news agency Kazinform reported that under a recently approved expansion plan for Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil field, Kazakhstan's largest onshore field, production would reach some 850,000 bbl/d -- an increase of some 260,000 bbl/d compared to current output -- and total some 39 million tons per year.

It appears Turkmenistan is sending representatives to the May meeting in Vienna, Reuters reported on May 11, citing OPEC sources.

Turkmenistan did not send anyone to the December meeting, but Reuters' sources in OPEC seemed certain Turkmen representatives would be at the meeting and would back additional cuts to oil production.

That might not mean much, since Turkmenistan only produces some 250,000 bbl/d. To put that into perspective, Saudi Arabia produces some 10 million barrels per day even after the agreeing to cut some 500,000 bbl/d.

Turkmenistan is a natural-gas producer, and since the price of gas on world markets follows the price of oil, Turkmenistan stands to gain if oil prices increase.

That would be one reason for Ashgabat to show its support for cuts in oil production.

But there is possibly another reason. Turkmenistan has been desperately seeking investors for its planned gas-pipeline projects so the country can export more of its gas.

Ashgabat has reached out, unsuccessfully, to Saudi Arabia, even to Qatar, itself a gas producer, looking for funding for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

Ashgabat assumed responsibility for coming up with 85 percent of the money for the estimated $10 billion TAPI project, and reports from Turkmenistan over the last year show the country is in no financial condition to pay that money on its own.

Turkmen authorities might be thinking there could be some quid pro quo here, and offer up support for oil cuts in the hope that one or more of the oil-exporting countries might be interested in helping finance a Turkmen export pipeline project.

So Kazakhstan goes with tepid enthusiasm for further production cuts, knowing the country will not go along with reductions much longer, whereas Turkmenistan goes with really nothing to lose and possibly something to gain by agreeing to anything the oil-exporting countries wish to do.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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.