Turkmenistan: Why stabilization of Afghanistan matters? By Mengli Mamedova.

Megli Mamedova, Contributor from Turkmenistan.

The proximity of Turkmenistan to the unstable region of Afghanistan raises many concerns about security situation in the country. In this regard, any changes, innovations or the military reform in Turkmenistan make observes wonder whether this is a sign of the degrading security situation in the region and emerging regional threats. However, Turkmenistan does not respond in line with the common believe that the spillover effect is inevitable and promotes mixed development agenda for Afghanistan and for itself which by now has proved to be effective and fitting to both countries.

Since the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, many suggested that Turkmenistan should build up its military and that the country now falls under the risk of attacks from the Taliban. As the number of attacks on the areas close to the border of Turkmenistan increased in 2014-2015, any smallest movement around the border either from the side of Afghanistan or Turkmenistan is being interpreted as a troubling sign of building up security threat.

Certainly, Turkmenistan has built up its military forces, strengthened border control through the means of fortification, and improved patrolling. However, authorities have not officially requested any military assistance from the U.S., Russia or any other power in the region. Moreover, the government of Turkmenistan uses the status of its permanent neutrality by continuously communicating the messages of friendship and good neighbors with Afghanistan.

In August 2015, the President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has paid a working visit to Afghanistan where he met with the President of Afghanistan Muhammad Ashraf Gani and visited the northern provinces of Afghanistan where the Turkmen diaspora resides.[1] Turkmenistan continuously provides aid to Afghanistan and the Turkmen diaspora in the north of the country.[2] Most recently, Turkmenistan accelerated the pace of negotiations and signing of the agreements on implementation of TAPI that the country has been promoting for more than 15 years.

Turkmen authorities always stress the need to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and call for global action in this regard.[3] Indeed, Turkmenistan cannot build a fence from its southern neighbor, nor can it isolate and cut off the relations because of the turbulence in Afghanistan. In geopolitical sense, this is because Turkmenistan is a landlocked country and cannot ignore the option to access the sea via Afghanistan. In terms of economic growth, Turkmenistan considers opportunities to expand its exports to the west and the south rather than to the north.

While the unrest in Afghanistan and the thriving Islamic forces could be influenced by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it would not have a spillover effect in terms of engagement of the population on the territory of Turkmenistan. However, it would put significant constrains on economic development and security situation in Turkmenistan in case the conflict in Afghanistan receives a new impetus. Attempts to penetrate to the territory of Turkmenistan for the purpose of transit, illegal trade, drugs and money smuggling, and human trafficking would inevitably lead to border shootings, increased security control, and increased number of crimes in Turkmenistan.

Nevertheless, it is important not to conflate all security concerns coming from Afghanistan into a single threat of Taliban taking over the country and the region to build an Islamic state.[4] The security situation in Central Asia including Turkmenistan is highly related to the diasporas residing in Afghanistan. More conflicts and clashes are observed on the border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan rather than Turkmenistan due to the size of the minority populations and their role in the conflict in Afghanistan.

“The battles near the Turkmenistani border are unconnected to the Taliban’s alleged expansion northward. This is not the first time that Taliban fighters have reached the Afghan border with Turkmenistan, but they never tried to start a war with Turkmenistan,[5]” states Ajdar Kurtov, a researcher at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS) and the editor of the magazine “The Problems of National Security”.

Perhaps, the coming investment that Turkmengaz and its partners will make into TAPI project, successful completion of the TUTAP initiatives and a number of other regional projects that Turkmenistan is engaged in to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan would indeed help building friendly relations with any new government of Afghanistan. For the moment, Turkmenistan is genuinely looking for possible solutions to the conflict in Afghanistan and offers new platforms for turning Ashgabat into the regional hub for discussions and forums on regional development.

[1] TDH, “Президент Туркменистана Гурбангулы Бердымухамедов встретился с представителями туркменской диаспоры в Афганистане”, August 27, 2015 http://tdh.gov.tm/index.php/ru/2013-04-29-11-55-24/2013-04-13-07-33-53/14154-2015-08-27-23-48-29

[2] AKIpress, “Berdymukhamedov promises ethnic Turkmen in Afghanistan to assist in electrification of border areas” http://m.akipress.com/news:564259/

[3] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, “Приоритетные позиции Туркменистана на 70-й сессии Генеральной Ассамблеи ООН”, 2015 http://www.mfa.gov.tm/ru/turkmenistan-int-ru/3526-70

[4] Igor Ratar, “Taliban and Afghan Military Clash near Turkmenistan’s Border”, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 85, May 6, 2013 http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40837&cHash=5f99bf3888d69ddcc37afdc2abf3ff97

[5] Igor Ratar, “Taliban and Afghan Military Clash near Turkmenistan’s Border”, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 85, May 6, 2013 http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40837&cHash=5f99bf3888d69ddcc37afdc2abf3ff97