Turkmenistan’s government is clarifying its policy toward its border with Afghanistan and now seems to be adopting the same tactic as neighbors Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- that is, sealing the frontier.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service -- known locally as Azatlyk -- has been in touch with people in northern Afghanistan and they speak of new activity and changes across the border.
And according to one local leader, the Turkmen government has not attempted to explain to the people on the Afghan side of the border -- many of whom are ethnic Turkmen -- what is happening on the Turkmen side of the frontier.
Ethnic Turkmen Gurbandurdy -- featured in an earlier report in "Qishloq Ovozi" -- is the leader of a civil militia, the Arbaky, in the Qarqeen district of Jowzjan Province.
Azatlyk contacted him on October 8 for an update on the situation along the border with Turkmenistan.
Gurbandurdy said that within the last week several large machines -- excavators and bulldozers -- appeared on Turkmenistan’s frontier with Jowzjan’s Khamyab district, which neighbors Qarqeen. Construction materials and wood were also brought.
Gurbandurdy said he had been in touch with friends in Khamyab who told him no one from Turkmenistan had contacted anyone in Khamyab to explain what is going on. The people in Khamyab told Gurbandurdy the machines were digging a ditch all along the border with the Khamyab district. The site where the construction material was left is located between two Turkmen border posts, but no one was sure if the purpose is to construct another border post.
Joshua Kucera of Eurasianet reported on similar activity in Faryab Province in September.
Gurbandurdy told Azatlyk that the Taliban has a significant presence in Khamyab and an Azatlyk correspondent in northern Afghanistan said people in the area speak of as many as 18 villages in Khamyab being under Taliban control.
On a related note, south of Qarqeen, in Jowzjan’s Mangajik district, there was large Taliban attack on the district center in August that reportedly involved some 100 fighters.
Gurbandurdy said his district is peaceful and credited the 150 fighters under his command for maintaining stability in Qarqeen. He said Turkmenistan was not building anything new along the border with his district, but he also pointed out that that left the Qarqeen frontier open while the border with neighboring Khamyab district was being fortified.
A source for Azatlyk in northern Afghanistan said Turkmenistan has increased its troop strength in several places along the border with Afghanistan recently and in the area where three of Turkmenistan’s border guards were killed in February the border guards have been replaced by “spetsnazi,” elite commandos.
The source added that some areas now have fences, three rows deep, blocking access from the Afghan side.
He also gave an idea of the security situation in many areas near the border with Turkmenistan. Azatlyk's source noted that during the recent Eid celebrations, local residents working for a Turkish construction company in Kabul, as well as government troops on leave, had to essentially sneak back to the area to be with their families and stay hidden while they were there.
Just a few months ago, officials from Turkmenistan seem to have been supportive of the villagers on the other side of the border, particularly Afghanistan’s ethnic Turkmen. Afghan Turkmen tribal leaders went to Kabul in April to meet with the visiting foreign minister of Turkmenistan, Rashid Meredov, and appeal for help. Meredov promised to help and not long after a delegation from Turkmenistan’s government went to some of the Afghan villages to discuss aid.
But now Turkmenistan has cut communication and is fortifying its border with Afghanistan. At the start of this year, it seemed the Turkmen government was counting on its policy of neutrality to fend off problems from Afghanistan, in the same way it did in the late 1990s when the Taliban controlled the areas neighboring Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan’s government might still be hoping an amicable deal can be reached with whoever controls Afghanistan’s Herat, Baghdis, Faryab, and Jowzjan provinces in the future, but Ashgabat is, at the least, hedging its bets this time.
-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Mohammad Tahir, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service