Turkmenistan Confronts Threat from South
Alexei BALIEV | 01.03.2015 | WORLD

Turkmenistan Confronts Threat from South

The US and NATO war in Afghanistan has come to a formal end. As expected, it resulted in further aggravation of the situation on the southern borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The 745 km long Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border has become the hottest spot.

The Taliban attacks have intensified since the spring of 2014 to become even more threatening than before. In January 2015, Ashgabat started mobilization to last till the end of March. The threat is serious enough to make Turkmenistan build additional fortifications at the frontier with Afghan Jowzjan Province to include a 6 meter deep ditch and barbed wire fencing with 2 meter high concrete pillars in between. Shohrat Kadyrov, the leading researcher of the Institute of Oriental Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences, is critical of the steps taken to counter the threat. According to him, «Turkmenistan boasts the territory equal in size to the Caucasus. It is the weakest link of Eurasian security. For instance, Tajikistan is protected from Afghanistan by range of high mountains. The border is relatively well guarded. In comparison there are no natural obstacles on the Turkmenistan’s border and no Russian troops are involved in border protection. No matter how deep the ditch may be, it won’t offer Turkmenistan, the country where tribalism is very strong, protection from the Taliban and the radicals of Islamic State». 

Talking about the situation at the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border, Yevgeny Satanovsky, President, the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, says «the death toll among civilians is measured in hundreds with dozens of houses burnt. There are cases of mass beheadings, something the region has not seen before. Experts are prone to point a finger at the Islamic State. Turkmen border guards suffer significant losses, some are taken prisoner by radicals. Militants cleanse the areas in the vicinity of border from local population while preparing corridors to be crossed in the spring of 2015».

Among the three neighboring states - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - the Turkmen border is the least protected. Around one million Turkmen reside on the Afghan side of the border - the second largest (after Iran) Turkmen population abroad. 

Around 60% of Turkmen residing in the contemporary Afghanistan are successors of refugees from the Bukhara Emirate and Khiva Khanate and those who left Turkmenistan escaping the Soviet rule in the 1920-1930s. 

The main threat comes from the Taliban. «To justify their appearance in lands alien to them, the Taliban claims that all land belongs to the Almighty one,» Afghan parliament member Nazari Turkmen said. «Taliban fighters don’t recognize any borders and pop up anywhere they choose, to start killing those unwilling to succumb to their rule». Pashtun tribes are the main source of recruitment for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The growing numbers of Turkmen Taliban militants have appeared recently in the north-western provinces of Afghanistan. Alexander Knyazev, a historian and an Oriental studies expert, says people use different ways to get to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Large armed units are being formed. A three thousand strong group is formed in the province of Faryab. Another formation numbering around two thousand warriors is located in the province of Bagdis. Around 30% of fighters come from Turkmenistan. In Afghanistan these formations (not government forces) control about 25% of the border with Turkmenistan. Since November 2104 skirmishes take place almost daily. Wounded border guards are taken to Ashgabad hospitals. 

According to Knyazev, in Afghanistan Turkmen Taliban have taken under their control almost the entire route of the proposed TAPI (the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline also known as Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline) natural gas pipeline. 

There is another factor to complicate things. Turkmen Mujahir, the successors of influential clans that escaped the Soviet Turkmenistan in the 1920-1930s and moved to Afghanistan, have been putting forward land restitution claims for a number of years. The claimed territory is situated near the cluster of gas fields: South Iolotan, Osman, Minara and Yashlar in Mary region (the south-east of the country). These deposits are used for forever increasing supplies to China. According to plans, they will fill with gas the TAPI pipeline under construction at present. The British consultancy Gaffney, Cline and Associates puts the reserves of the Galkynysh (English: Renaissance, the name for the South Yolotan-Osman gas field) in Mary oblast (region) at around 21, 2 trillion cubic meters. It makes it the largest gas field in the world after the South Pars, the world's largest natural gas condensate field located in the Persian Gulf and shared between Iran and Qatar. 

Ever since the days of Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenistan has been adhering to the policy of neutrality stated in the United Nations General Assembly resolution of December 12, 1995. The document states that the United Nations "recognizes and supports the declared status of permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan." Such a unique document was adopted for the first time by the international community of nations. There are signs that the exacerbation of tension provoked by the withdrawal of the international coalition from Afghanistan puts the Turkmenistan’s neutrality in doubt – the country is facing the most serious test in the recent twenty years. As Shohrat Kadyrov puts it, under the conditions «willy-nilly» Russian becomes the main guarantor of neutral Turkmenistan’s security.

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