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My Mistreated Ally: Tensions On The Afghan-Turkmen Border

The seemingly inexorable southern advance of the Amu-Darya river has caused all sorts of problems for Afghan villagers like Ghulam Rasool. (screen grab)
The seemingly inexorable southern advance of the Amu-Darya river has caused all sorts of problems for Afghan villagers like Ghulam Rasool. (screen grab)
The countdown to the drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan at the end of this year is on. Afghanistan’s neighbors are already seeking allies in Afghanistan to act as a buffer between them and the anticipated decline in stability.

Not surprisingly, these allies are usually their ethnic cousins living in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has such allies – the ethnic Turkmen just over the border. The problem is, some of the Afghan Turkmen have reason to view Turkmenistan as an enemy, rather than a friend.

In the very southeast corner of Turkmenistan, for some 100 kilometers, the country is divided from Afghanistan by one of Central Asia’s biggest rivers -- the Amu-Darya. This section of the Amu-Darya is moving southward. According to some Afghan Turkmen, the river has pushed several kilometers south in just a couple of generations.

This shift has washed away some of the many villages located along the river’s edge in this arid region. Wooded areas from what was once the Afghan side of the river remain above the water, forming the core of islands in the Amu-Darya. Often these islands are good grazing land when the water level is low enough to herd cattle onto them.

But, Turkmenistan believes everything up to the south bank of the Amu-Darya belongs to Turkmenistan, including the islands.

That is a big problem for the Afghan Turkmen.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, spoke with some of the Afghan Turkmen from the area along the Amu-Darya.

A surprising number of them told tales of being taken to jail by Turkmen police, border guards and/or security forces after being caught grazing their herds on disputed territory. And despite being ethnic Turkmen like their captors, they were treated roughly in prison.

The father and brother of a man named Saidmurat lamented he had already been in a Turkmen prison for seven years after being apprehended by that country's border guards while grazing his cattle. His brother Akmurat said they hope for Saidmurat’s return soon so "he can be reunited with his wife and child."

Another man said he had been arrested when he was grazing his cattle "in the woods" on one of the shoals in the river. He said Turkmenistan's soldiers and security forces killed some of the cattle and threw the carcasses into the river before arresting him and his friends for being on land the Afghan Turkmen insisted was "our land, our woods."

The man also said he and his friends were tortured while in prison.

Abdul Ghaffar was arrested for a different reason and imprisoned in Turkmenistan. He told a similar story of abuse. VIDEO

WATCH: An Afghan Villager Says Turkmen Authorities Abused Him
Afghan Villager Says He Was Tortured By Turkmen Authorities
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Abdul Ghaffar also recounted when another person was tortured in the prison.

WATCH: Alleged Abuse By Turkmen Authorities
Afghan Villager Discusses Alleged Abuse By Turkmen Authorities
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Villagers told Azatlyk a man recently returned minus one ear after being in a Turkmenistan prison.

To be fair, not all the Afghan Turkmen had horror stories about being in prison in Turkmenistan. One man said his biggest complaint was that the one cup of tea he received every day was never hot. “When I am arrested next time I expect hot tea,” he said.

Every one of the people speaking to Azatlyk said they were arrested while on disputed territory that they all claimed was rightfully their land. One man claimed the area where he was caught was the same place the village he was born in once stood.

Most were freed under amnesties regularly given by Turkmenistan’s presidents to mark Independence Day, the end of Ramadan or some other occasion.

None seemed grateful for the amnesty. They were bitter toward Turkmenistan’s government for unjustly, in their view, arresting and incarcerating them.

Of course the cause of this problem remains. The Amu-Darya is still moving south and eating away Afghan villages.

Qishloq Ovozi has already noted that, in the past, Turkmenistan’s government was providing some aid in shoring up the southern bank of the Amu-Darya. That help seems to have been suspended, leaving the Afghan Turkmen in the area to fend as best they can.

Ghulam Rasool, who described himself as a "group leader," recounted that it is not only homes and farmland the Amu-Darya is threatening.

WATCH: Problems For An Afghan Village On The Turkmen Border
Afghan Village Chief Describes Problems On The Turkmenistan Border
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Some of the Afghan Turkmen have moved further south where the land is mainly desert. They live in small homes built with material obtained mainly from the charity of others in the region. And they say the government might push them off that land.

There might be, and most probably is, natural gas there (part of the Amu-Darya Basin structure, "which contains some of the world's largest gas and condensate fields," according to Tethys Petroleum).

In previous articles, Qishloq Ovozi has attempted to shed light on the vulnerability of the area along the Turkmen-Afghan border. We've mentioned that the frontier between the two countries is not well watched, that the Taliban and their allies are in the region already, that Turkmenistan's government, or at least the country's forces along the border, seem to be unsure what policy to take toward the Taliban.

We've also seen Afghan Turkmen who say they are prepared to fight the Taliban and keep them from crossing onto Turkmen soil, but also are who asking for help from Turkmenistan.

In response to an earlier article on Qarqeen, a reader calling themselves "Former Afghan Turkmen" said in the comments section that some of the ethnic Turkmen of Afghanistan "have been Taliban, and then they became anti-Taliban, and they will become Taliban again."

That is probably true. It’s also true the some of those Afghan Turkmen jailed in Turkmenistan might have been doing something more than grazing cattle when they were apprehended, narcotics smuggling, for example, is common in this area.

But the stories they tell other people on the Afghan side of the border of being jailed and beaten in Turkmenistan are not going to help convince anyone Turkmenistan is a better option for an ally than the Taliban.

And for Turkmenistan, the expense of constructing a solid retaining wall on the Afghan side of the river could earn them some gratitude and loyalty from their fellow Turkmen in Afghanistan.

-- Bruce Pannier