One of the great fears across Central Asia for the past 30 years has been the potential for one of the successive conflicts in Afghanistan to spill over the border. The reality of this threat has waxed and waned with the conflict — and the Taliban was only ever interested in Afghanistan — but the persistent anxiety has understandably influenced how the three Central Asian states that border Afghanistan view the border and their own security.
In simplified terms: Tajikistan hypes the threat and by default its own insecurity, inspiring investments from concerned countries like the United States. Tajikistan hosts as many as 7,000 Russian troops, most at a base outside Dushanbe. Uzbekistan — with the shortest Afghan border — has capitalized on some assistance but remains wary of foreign presences. Tashkent has heavily secured its border with Afghanistan with landmines, barbed wire, and an electrified fence; and has been proactive about detaining anyone poking around the area.
Turkmenistan says little and seems to do little concerning its southern border. If Ashgabat’s most emphatic protestations were to be believed, all is quiet on the southern front. Of course, that’s not what opposition media reports and that’s not what they say across the border.
In October 2015, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing its “profound concern and bewilderment” at a statement made by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that there were “incidents” along the Turkmen and Tajik borders with Afghanistan. Ashgabat told Astana to “adhere to more objective information when assessing the situation.”
One could forgive the Kazakhs for thinking something was amiss on the border. Earlier in 2015, reports surfaced that Ashgabat had requested assistance from the United States. Those reports were tied not to vague media seeping out of cloistered Turkmenistan but from Congressional testimony delivered by the then-head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin. Austin, delivering CENCOM’s annual posture statement, said Turkmenistan had “recently expressed a desire to acquire U.S. military equipment and technology to address threats to their security along their southern border with Afghanistan.” But by the end of 2015, Turkmenistan was back to saying it didn’t need help.
Since Ashgabat is mostly mum and often duplicitous, we have to rely on arguably flawed but not necessarily false, claims made in opposition media and by Kabul — which has its own security agenda.
In summer 2016, Alternative Turkmenistan News reported that the bodies of 27 conscripts assigned to the border services had been brought back to the capitals of the provinces that border Afghanistan, Mary and Lebap, that May. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported in June on increased fighting in the Afghan regions bordering Turkmenistan, citing Afghan military officials.
That summer, the Russian defense minister paid a visit to Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is avowedly neutral and does not participate in any regional security structures; it was a curious visit and the first by a Russian defense minister to the country. Then Russian media reported Russian defense officials as saying that Moscow would be providing Turkmenistan’s armed forces with weapons and training.
The cognitive dissonance continues, with Turkmenistan still insisting officially that it has a handle on the border and nearly everyone else — particularly media and Afghans — claiming the opposite.
Recent reports suggest that Ashgabat may be trying its hand at working with the Taliban, perhaps to keep them safely on the other side. A former Afghan official, Ismail Khan, claimed this week that Turkmenistan was supplying weapons to the Taliban. According to Pajhwok, the former water and energy minister held a press conference in Afghanistan’s Herat province this week and said he’d informed the Turkmen authorities that weapons were being supplied across the border.
“I urged the Turkmenistan foreign minister that the weapons to Herat are supplied from Turkmenistan, it should be paid serious attention,” Khan said. He also said that there were only two security posts on the Turkmen-Afghan border, calling that number insufficient.
The Turkmen consulate in Herat, of course, said Khan’s claims were “baseless.” There have been similar reports that Russia is supplying and supporting the Taliban.
Whatever is happening on the Turkmen-Afghan border, it’s decidedly more than nothing. And as useless a concept as “fighting season” has become in Afghanistan, spring is on its way and this summer promises to be another difficult one across the country.