Crossroads Asia

Turkmenistan’s Afghanistan Policy: Balancing Risks and Untapped Opportunities

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Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Turkmenistan’s Afghanistan Policy: Balancing Risks and Untapped Opportunities

Ashgabat has a delicate balance to maintain between hewing to its traditional neutrality and mitigating potential threats from Afghanistan. 

Turkmenistan’s Afghanistan Policy: Balancing Risks and Untapped Opportunities
Credit: Depositphotos

The recent delegations from the Taliban regime to Turkmenistan underscore a significant warming of relations between the two countries. On March 15, workers from Turkmenistan were scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan for three months to work on the TAPI pipeline. According to Afghan officials Turkmenistan has also agreed to provide a credit line for the realization of the project.

Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Turkmenistan relies heavily on water resources originating from its neighbor’s territory. Turkmenistan has a delicate balance to maintain between hewing to its traditional neutrality and mitigating potential security threats from Afghanistan. In response to these challenges, Turkmenistan has strategically opted to enhance its diplomatic engagements with Afghanistan, aiming to influence the Taliban and safeguard its national security.

A New Era of Relations Between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan?

Since the beginning of this year, there has been an intensification of contacts between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan around key topics such as the implementation of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and the promotion of transport corridors, including the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which would link Afghanistan through Turkmenistan’s ports with Azerbaijan, Europe, and Russia. The Taliban government’s foreign minister visited Turkmenistan twice, on January 14 and February 26, and in early March a joint business forum was held in Turkmenistan. 

On March 15, Turkmen workers were set to arrive in Afghanistan for the construction of the TAPI pipeline. As RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlyk, reported, thousands of workers, including oil and gas specialists, installers, and laborers are being sent for three months to work on the pipeline. This is indeed a turning point, as the construction of TAPI has been underway since 2015. However, the unstable security situation in Afghanistan had created serious obstacles to the full realization of the project.

Taliban officials report that Turkmenistan has committed to providing a loan to cover the costs associated with the TAPI pipeline project. The estimated cost of the project at present ranges from $9 to 10 billion, with the TAPI Pipeline Company Limited (TPCL) tasked with its construction and oversight. This initiative represents a significant regional development effort.

A key problem in the development of relations between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan since the Taliban movement came to power in 2021 has been a lack of clarity on the further development of the situation inside Afghanistan, as well as what risks the new situation inside Afghanistan could pose to the national security of neighboring countries. The construction of the Qosh Tepa canal on the Amu Darya River aggravated the situation, providing motivation for Turkmenistan to engage more seriously with the Taliban. 

For Turkmenistan, the canal posed a danger. The country experienced a record number protests due to the economic crisis in 2020; problems with the food supply compounded existing economic problems. The most affected areas of the country were those that border Afghanistan, Lebap and Mary, both of which are also seriously affected by the implementation of the Qosh Tepa canal by the current ruling regime in Afghanistan. 

In June 2023, farmers in Lebap province were unable to irrigate their cotton fields because the water simply did not reach these areas. The worsening water situation could spark a new wave of protests in the country.

The Taliban started the project in March 2022 and are said to have completed about 100 km of the planned 285 km. The Qosh Tepa canal will irrigate 550,000 hectares of land, diverting 25 percent of the Amu Darya River’s flow into the northern Afghan provinces of Balkh, Jawzjan and Faryab, bordering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. According to some estimates, which were described by Kunduz Adylbekova, in five to six years, when the canal is completed and operational, Turkmenistan’s average water availability in the middle and lower reaches of the transboundary river will drop from 80 to 65 percent.

Against this background, it was important for Turkmenistan to actively pursue a strategy of engagement with the new authorities in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Turkmenistan is aware of the threats to the country from the territory of Afghanistan; on the other hand, there are new opportunities for the launch of pipelines and transport corridors. For these reasons, Turkmenistan has decided to invest in developing good relations with the Taliban government and thus build the connections to have a dialogue on the topics of most concern to Turkmenistan: border security and joint use of water resources. 

The official statements of made by Ashgabat during the Turkmen-Afghan business forum on March 4 are illustrative in this regard. A readout posted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan said that “Turkmenistan is actively promoting its initiatives for the systematic use of water resources, taking into account the interests of all states in the region and the comprehensive solution of water management issues.” In fact, the statement was one of the first official comments from Ashgabat regarding Afghanistan’s water projects. 

In a speech at the forum, Acting Minister of Industry and Trade of Afghanistan Nuruddin Azizi stressed that Kabul would prioritize mutual consent, equality, and respect in managing transboundary water resources and the construction of water facilities. He highlighted Turkmenistan’s longstanding friendship and good-neighborliness as foundational to these efforts. Although the foreign ministry readout did not mention the canal by name, it’s clear there was an official exchange of views between the two parties.

Indeed, since the start of the year, a new chapter in Afghan-Turkmen cooperation has unfolded through several key meetings and events. On January 14 and again on February 26, delegations led by Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi made visits to Turkmenistan, marking a significant step in this collaboration.

On March 3, ahead of the business forum, Azizi led a delegation on a visit to Turkmenbashi International Sea Port. This visit allowed the delegation to explore the capabilities of Turkmenbashi International Sea Port and its infrastructure. The following business forum included a showcase of Afghan products at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and concluded with discussions between Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and the delegation led by Azizi.

Nothing Personal, Just Business

Turkmenistan’s relations with Afghanistan are driven by pragmatic goals – maximize the benefits of cooperation with the Taliban government and minimize the risks. Turkmenistan’s top leader, Chairman of the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, met with Azizi during the Taliban minister’s visit on March 5 and underscored Turkmenistan’s “positive neutrality” in supporting “only political and diplomatic efforts” in addressing Afghanistan’s internal situation. 

Berdimuhamedov noted Turkmen interest in power transmission and railway lines, in the context of Turkmenistan’s transport potential. Afghanistan is particularly interested in promoting the Lapis Lazuli Corridor project, which covers Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey and dates back to 2012. The name refers to Afghan lapis lazuli, a kind of gemstone that was historically traded through the Caucasus. The corridor was opened in road form in 2018, while the railway part of the project involves connecting Herat to the Torghundi station on the Turkmen border. In December 2023, the issue was discussed during talks between the Taliban and Turkmenistan foreign ministers.

Russia remains interested in the corridor as well. On February 1, representatives of Russian Railways Logistics visited Turkmenbashi International Sea Port to consider the possibilities of using it to export goods to Afghanistan and Iran. The delegation studied the port’s infrastructure and its capabilities for handling various types of cargo. 

The first results of joint work in this area are already visible now. On April 15, Joint Stock Company “Commercial Sea Fleet” sent its Ro-Pax ferry “Bagtyyar” on its first voyage this year from the port of Turkmenbashi to the Russian port of Olya with 40 cargo trucks loaded with food products. On the return voyage to Turkmenistan, the ferry will leave with 800 tons of Belarusian cheese and Russian products in 42 trucks. According to Oleg Lychagin, head of the customs post Sea Port Olya, over the last five years mostly construction goods, mainly from the UAE and Iran, were imported by sea through the Olya; Turkmenistan has now been added to the list.

Turkmen Strategic Objectives in Relations With the Taliban

It is crucial to understand Turkmenistan’s strategic objectives in its relations with the Taliban in order to anticipate future developments. These objectives include a strong interest to guarantee the successful implementation and security of the TAPI project, which is vital for Turkmenistan’s economic future; to ensure a stable and secure environment along Turkmenistan’s borders, thereby reducing risks such as terrorism and drug trafficking; aims to enhance regional connections through transit and transportation initiatives that are mutually beneficial; Turkmenistan’s inclination to contribute to peace and stability in the wider region; and Ashgabat’s hope to navigate the intricate regional dynamics by positioning itself as a neutral player while at the same time engaging in dialogue with the Taliban to achieve its aforementioned strategic objectives.