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