Turkmenistan’s UN-recognized status as a neutral state may soon to be tested by events just over the border in Afghanistan. But for now, the Turkmen government is maintaining its policy of “positive neutrality,” certainly as concerns their ethnic kin: the Turkmen of Afghanistan.
The Afghan Turkmen are in a desperate situation and have been appealing to the Turkmen government for help, to no avail.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been following events along the Turkmen-Afghan order for more than a year as the situation there has deteriorated. Azatlyk recently received information from two areas in northern Afghanistan that sheds new light on events there.
First to Marchak, a district in Baghdis Province and a place Qishloq Ovozi has written about previously. It’s where the Taliban killed three Turkmen border guards in February 2014.
Already in March 2014, Marchak was surrounded on three sides by the Taliban; on the fourth side was the Murghab River and, across it, Turkmenistan. The Taliban was allowing elderly and very young males to leave occasionally to buy supplies for the village at the district center some 35 kilometers away.
That has changed.
The chief of the Marchak border post, Dowlet Maween, told Azatlyk that hardly anyone ever leaves anymore and, worse, although Marchak district is still officially under government control, the Taliban is strong enough in surrounding areas to demand ransoms from villagers. Maween said recently that the Taliban forced one village to pay 500,000 Afghanis ($8,700) after cutting off water to the village and preventing villagers from taking their herds out to graze. Maween claimed two months ago that the Taliban -- “by force” -- collected a combined 2 million Afghanis ($35,000) from several other villages and that the government couldn't prevent it.
Marchak residents seem to be eking out a living despite being cut off from the rest of Afghanistan, but access to medical care is a different matter. Maween said those who become seriously sick “have two options: Get treatment in the village or die.”
There is a third option and it involves Turkmenistan. Village leaders have asked local Turkmen officials across the border to allow Afghan Turkmen passage from Baghdis through Turkmenistan to the town of Turgundy in Herat Province.
Maween said he has made this request to officials in Turkmenistan several times and received promises that the request would be forwarded to officials higher up but as yet he had not received an answer. Maween told Azatlyk he was “begging for mercy” from officials in Ashgabat, particularly from President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who “we consider to be president of all Turkmen.”
Further east, along a different river -- the Amu-Darya -- Afghan Turkmen have a different problem with Turkmenistan. Qishloq Ovozi has also previously written about the village of Qarqeen in Jowzjan Province, where the Turkmen are battling the Taliban and the migrating river, which has moved dozens of kilometers south in just a couple of generations, swallowing Afghan farmland and eventually leaving it on Turkmenistan’s side of the border as it continues pushing south.
Islands have been created in this process and the Afghan Turkmen of Qarqeen were taking their herds across the shallow water to one particularly large island that has grass and trees.
Recently, Turkmen border guards appeared on the island and started fencing it off and digging ditches without informing the Afghan side of the purpose of this work.
Qarqeen village elder Abdul Haliq Haji told Azatlyk that Turkmenistan first sent helicopters to chase away Qarqeen residents from the island and now will not allow any of the villagers to come near it.
According to Haji, the one-time owners of that land, before it was surrounded by water and became an island, are still paying taxes on the land to the Afghan government.
Haji said village elders have spoken with local border guard commanders from Turkmenistan who promised to look into the situation, “but nothing happened.”
Haji claimed there was a protest outside the Qarqeen district head’s office on February 26 that drew “nearly 10,000 people,” who were all demanding that Afghan authorities do something to solve the problem.
Resentment against Turkmenistan is growing in Qarqeen and Marchak, added to the resentment villagers there already have against their own government, which has paid little attention to their problems and seems incapable of helping them.
Such a situation plays into the hands of militant groups in the region, which are reportedly increasing in number, in part because of a recent wave of ethnic Uzbek militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They have been chased back into Afghanistan by the Pakistani military’s offensive in the North Waziristan tribal area and are moving into areas of northern Afghanistan.
Qishloq Ovozi will be taking a look at that problem soon.
-- Bruce Pannier
Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report