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Qishloq Ovozi

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
Tajikistan's Kairakkum hydropower station, one of many the country hopes will lead to energy independence and even exports, while Uzbekistan fears for its own water supply.
Uzbekistan has welcomed a U.S. law that, according to Uzbekistan's media at least, supports Tashkent's opposition to the construction of large hydropower projects (HPP) by its Central Asian neighbors.

As reported by Uzbek media, this law would severely curtail the ability of international financial organizations to provide funding for building large HPPs, for example, the kind being planned in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

There are key details being omitted in these Uzbek claims and those will be mentioned further down. For now, it's important to understand what the people in eastern Central Asia are hearing and believe.

Speaking with journalists in Tashkent on January 30 about the U.S. law, the director of Uzbekistan's Gidroproyekt Institute, Sergei Zhigarev, said the law "directly obliges the U.S. representatives in the boards of directors of international financial institutions to oppose the approval of any loans or document that would support projects on the construction of large dams and hydroenergy facilities."

He noted the United States was the "biggest shareholder and donor" of many major international financial institutions. Zhigarev listed "the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Development Association, the Asian Development Bank, [and] the Asian Development Fund" as being among the organizations where U.S. officials would now be expected to object to funding for large HPP projects. Those comments were on the front page of newspapers in Uzbekistan, "Pravda vostoka" for one.

Not surprisingly, some people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are concerned. The governments in those two countries have been telling their people for years that large HPPs are the way to energy independence and an end to heating and electricity shortages. Both countries are currently planning to build large HPPs. And considering how brutal winter has been in Central Asia recently, Zhigarev's comments come at a very bad time.

The subject came up in Dushanbe on February 11, when Tajik journalists asked visiting World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Laura Tuck about the U.S. law. Tuck was in Tajikistan to announce the World Bank's feasibility study on the Roghun HPP -- a project Uzbekistan opposes -- would be completed by the middle of this year. Tuck said she knew about the law but declined to comment.*

Tuck might have chosen to refrain discussing the issue because, according to an article in "The Washington Post" on January 24, the new U.S. law is aimed at the World Bank and seeks to tighten oversight of the bank's lending practices. According to the article, the bill came partially in response to past bank-funded HPP projects in Guatemala, where hundreds of villagers were killed, and Ethiopia, where thousands were forcibly resettled. Central Asia doesn't seem to be specifically mentioned.

Those are some of the details Uzbek media has left out.

No U.S. official has yet provided any statement on what the new law means for hydropower in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But "The Washington Post" article notes, "The U.S. vote alone would not be enough to block hydroelectric and other projects from moving forward."

And there are some good reasons the new U.S. law will have little, if any effect on construction of the Roghun HPP in Tajikistan, or the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP in Kyrgyzstan. The best reason is that the money for building the Kyrgyz and Tajik HPPs is not coming from any of the international financial institutions where the U.S. has a presence.

Russia abandoned the Roghun project due to disagreements over the size of the HPP (planned to be the tallest in the world) and ownership shares. The Tajik government has since been going it alone and advertising Roghun as a patriotic project, encouraging, some would say forcing, citizens to donate from their own pockets.

The World Bank is only doing an assessment of the project, exactly the sort of assessment the Uzbek government has been demanding.

And Russian companies are building Kambar-Ata in Kyrgyzstan. Tashkent is also demanding an independent assessment of that project.

Kyrgyzstan's Energy Ministry pointed out in February 2012 that such an assessment was already conducted in the 1980s "by the Tashkent department of project-investigation and scientific-research institute 'Gidroproyekt.'" The 1978 feasibility study on Roghun was also conducted by Gidroproyekt.

Another reason the Kyrgyz and Tajik HPPs are unlikely to affected by the U.S. law is the Central Asia-South Asia project, or CASA-1000.

CASA-1000 aims to provide Afghanistan and Pakistan with 1,300 megawatts of electricity annually (1,000 for Pakistan and 300 for Afghanistan). The U.S. government and international organizations such as the World Bank support the project. Washington pledged $15 million toward the project in December 2013. The World Bank and Islamic Development Bank have promised up to $1 billion. The latest round of negotiations on the project started in Washington on February 11.

CASA-1000 is dependent on hydroelectricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While it is true the plan is based on HPPs that already exist, it is also true that those HPPs are currently not able to supply all the electricity needed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

So for CASA-1000 to work, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan need to build Kambar-Ata and Roghun. Washington would have a difficult time convincing Bishkek or Dushanbe to forego construction of these large HPPs and at the same time divert power badly needed at home to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Journalist Hillary Kramer has argued for Roghun's construction in articles in "Forbes" magazine. Kramer wrote in March 2013 that the extra electricity from Roghun would provide "cheap, secure, and sustainable energy to Tajikistan, and its neighbors, including the northern regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan" and have a beneficial effect on security in the region.

*The World Bank representative in Tajikistan, Abdullo Ashurov, sent RFE/RL's Tajik Service a message saying the World Bank was "aware of the new provision in the United States' law regarding large hydroelectric dams" but "given that these are sovereign decisions, the World Bank does not comment or form an opinion on these instructions."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contacted Energy and Industry Minister Osmonbek Artykbaev, who said he did not know about the U.S. law and that the World Bank had not said anything to Kyrgyz officials about the U.S. law or its possible impact on the country's HPP projects. Artykbaev said plans for Kambar-Ata and the Upper Naryn cascade HPPs are going ahead.

Sojida Djakhfarova and Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Gulaiym Ashakeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this article

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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.