Extremist build-up creates tension on Turkmen-Afghan border

By Dzhumaguly Annayev


Turkmen military officers swear their loyalty to the state in March. [Screen shot by Dzhumaguly Annayev]

ASHGABAT -- Turkmen officials are watching the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan closely, fearful that the security situation along the countries' shared border is deteriorating.

The vigil comes as Turkmenistan continues resolutely to foster economic co-operation with Afghanistan, in the hope that prosperity will help end more than 30 years of non-stop fighting in that tormented country.

Recent economic co-operation, as reported by Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) TV, includes two major under-construction projects: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural-gas pipeline and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway. Officials also envision an Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey transit corridor that, if completed, would give Afghanistan an outlet to the sea.

Trouble in northern Afghanistan

However, economic co-operation depends on peace in Afghanistan, which presently seems elusive.

The situation in the country's north has worsened in the past two or three years, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service reported June 18.

Extremists "found refuge [in northern Afghanistan] after the Pakistani army ... drove them out of North Waziristan", Muhammad Omar Safi, former governor of Kunduz Province, told RFE/RL, referring to the counter-insurgency Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began in June 2014.

The Taliban presently operate in more than half of northern Afghanistan, he estimated.

The Taliban are tyrannising the north by enforcing their own laws, seizing control of trans-border infrastructure like power lines that carry Turkmen electricity to Afghan cities, and maybe even attacking Central Asian countries, other media report.

In February and May 2014, multiple Afghan Taliban attacks killed six Turkmen border guards.

In June, Alternative News of Turkmenistan (ANT), citing its own sources in Mary and Turkmenabad, reported on the shipment of 27 slain Turkmen border guards' bodies to their towns for burial.

The Turkmen government never acknowledged those deaths or the causes of death.

Meanwhile, in yet another incident, an unspecified number of Turkmen border guards recently were killed in Mary Province, sources close to the Defence Ministry indirectly confirmed to Central Asia Online. However, those sources were unable to say anything about those troops' cause of death.

Terrorism might not have been the culprit, but rather a "hazing" incident that led to fatal violence, Rozygeldi, a State Border Service (GPS) officer stationed in Tagtabazar, told Central Asia Online.

Border security is evident

However, even if Turkmen authorities feel uneasy about the situation in northern Afghanistan, militants are noticing recent efforts by Ashgabat to build up border security.

Turkmenistan arguably does a better job of protecting its Afghan border than Tajikistan does, Obaid Ali, an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, told RFE/RL's Turkmen service June 18.

Militants who want to join the war in Afghanistan almost never succeed in breaching Turkmen border security, while they have been able to cross from Tajikistan into Afghanistan, Ali said.

"Faryab [which borders Turkmenistan] has far fewer foreign fighters than Afghanistan's other northern provinces do," Ali said. "[The foreign fighters] ... leak into here from the eastern provinces but not from Turkmen territory."

Turkmen authorities who see widespread combat in the Afghan border provinces of Jawzjan, Faryab, Badghis, Herat and Sar-i-Pul, are reacting with a military build-up along the border.

They conducted surprise inspections of troop combat readiness in March and April. They also sent reinforcements to the most vulnerable segments of the shared border with Afghanistan.

The unrest in Afghan border provinces "is an Afghan internal matter", Rozygeldi, the GPS officer, said. "Our job is to protect our borders. We will do our job, no matter what."

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