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Rising Concerns Over Taliban Threat To Turkmenistan

Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice president of Afghanistan, leading troops in Jowzjan.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice president of Afghanistan, leading troops in Jowzjan.

Officials in a restive northern Afghan province say the Taliban are seeking to pour into neighboring Turkmenistan by creating chaos and insecurity in the region.

Engineer Ahmad, district governor of Jowzjan's Khamab district, says the Taliban want to carve a permanent presence in the strategic area.

"Khamab borders Turkmenistan, and that's why the enemy is trying to make the area unsafe -- to have influence in Turkmenistan," Ahmad told RFE/RL's Gandhara website on October 25. "The district is a key goal for the Taliban."

Ahmad says that last week scores of insurgents fled from Khamab to an island on the Amu Darya River, which separates Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

They were pushed back by an Afghan military offensive led by Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. Since the summer, the former warlord has led anti-Taliban operations in his home province of Jowzjan and neighboring Faryab. The majority of residents in the two provinces are Dostum's fellow Uzbeks.

Thus year's Taliban offensive in northern Afghanistan is aided by large numbers of Central Asian militants who have joined the Taliban's fight in an apparent bid to secure a safe haven for staging a comeback in their home countries.

Dostum's spokesman Sultan Faizi says more than 80 Taliban fighters were killed in last week's operation in Khamab. He says an equal number of fighters ditched their motorcycles and fled to the Amu Darya island in boats.

"One option for them is to surrender. And another option is that they will be eliminated because winter is coming and they don't have access to resources, logistics, or food," Faizi said. "In fact, they are naturally surrounded."

Faizi says Dostum has been in contact with Turkmenistan's envoy to Afghanistan to explore ways of handling the insurgents.

He added Ashgabat has taken the "necessary measures" and expressed readiness in countering any potential spillover of the insurgents onto Turkmen soil.

According to Reuters, a spokesman for the Taliban denied their fighters were besieged. The spokesman, who was not named, claimed their fighters were on the Afghan side of the island to fight the Afghan security forces.

Dostum, however, was less upbeat. He told reporters on October 25 the insurgents were using women and children as human shields.

"This is the problem of the operation: It is very hard to tell a foe from a friend under such circumstances," he said. "We need to avoid casualties among the civilian population and our servicemen."

Turkmenistan is seen as being the most vulnerable of the three Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan. Russia, China, and the United States have helped Tajikistan to protect its long border with Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan's short border with its eastern neighbor is well protected. Turkmenistan's long border with Afghanistan, however, is extremely vulnerable to militant infiltration.

Moscow is leading the Central Asian nations in expressing concerns over rising insecurity in northern Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) could create a joint task force to protect the grouping's external borders. He told journalists that closer military cooperation is necessary because the situation in Afghanistan is "close to critical."

In a meeting on October 16, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan signed a statement on combating international terrorism. At the meeting, held in Kazakhstan, they also agreed on military and border-security cooperation through 2020.

"Terrorists of various stripes are gaining more and more influence and are not hiding their plans for further expansion," Putin told journalists. "One of their aims is to make a breakthrough into the Central Asian region. It is important for us to be ready to react to such a scenario together."

In Khamab, Ahmed says the situation is critical. He called on the Afghan government to secure his district.

"My main concern is that a weak government response will prompt locals to support the Taliban and fight from within their homes," he said.

With reporting by Reuters and IFEX