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First Firefight: Turkmen, Taliban Engage In Border Shoot-Out


A video grab shows a military vehicle stationed on the Turkmen side of the Turkmen-Afghan border in December 2021.

Turkmen border guards were reportedly involved in a sustained exchange of fire with Taliban forces on January 3, the first known time the two have been in a shoot-out.

The facts of the incident are coming from the Afghan side, but the story thus far is amazing if for no other reason that Turkmen forces reportedly fired into Afghanistan.

According to Helal Balkhi, head of the Taliban’s Information Department in the northern Jowzjan Province, it was Turkmen border guards who started shooting and the incident came after Turkmen troops shot and killed an Afghan civilian in the same area several days earlier.

The Turkmen side has not commented on the incident and is unlikely to do so considering precedent. The Turkmen government and state media always go to great lengths to avoid reporting any bad news concerning Turkmenistan.

A stretch of the Turkmen-Afghan border. The secretive Turkmen government reveals little of what happens in its borderlands.
A stretch of the Turkmen-Afghan border. The secretive Turkmen government reveals little of what happens in its borderlands.

An example is Turkmen officials clinging to their absurd claim that the country has not had a single case of coronavirus, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

Violent events along the border with Afghanistan fall into the same category.

Three Turkmen border guards were killed along the Afghan border in February 2014 and three Turkmen soldiers were killed in May of that year.

The only source for that information came from Afghan villagers and, in those cases, there was never any mention of Turkmen forces opening fire to defend themselves.

In recent years Taliban fighters have been chased to the Turkmen border by Afghan government troops and Afghan government troops were also forced to the Turkmen border by Taliban fighters, and every time Turkmen border guards told them they could not enter Turkmenistan. But there were no reports that Turkmen troops ever used their weapons.

Turkmen officials and state media have never commented on those encounters with forces from Afghanistan.

The only incident along the Afghan border when Turkmen troops seem to have opened fire happened in May 2018 when some were reportedly involved in an exchange of fire that left 25 Turkmen dead.

That appears to have involved a militant group or drug smugglers who were not part of the Taliban.

Turkmen officials and state media did not mention that incident, either.

In the current incident, some residents on the Afghan side of the border contacted RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, and gave their version of what happened.

Turkmen border guards taking part in training along the Turkmen-Afghan border. (file photo)
Turkmen border guards taking part in training along the Turkmen-Afghan border. (file photo)

According to them, the shooting between Turkmen and Taliban forces went on for several hours and Taliban fighters shot rockets at Turkmen positions during the clash.

They said a man named Abdulkerim, an ethnic Turkmen citizen of Afghanistan from the Khamyab district, was shot dead by Turkmen border guards. But is not known why.

When the Taliban came several hours later to investigate, Turkmen border guards reportedly opened fire on them.

It is an unusual story, and the alleged aggressiveness on the part of Turkmen troops is even stranger.

The secretive Turkmen government unfortunately reveals little of what happens along its borders, but in the 30 years Turkmenistan has been independent there have only been two reported incidents, in 2015 and 2018, in which Turkmen troops used deadly force. Both of those happened on the Caspian Sea and involved Iranians.

Why Turkmen troops felt the need to apparently open fire into Afghanistan in this incident remains a mystery.

Turkmen authorities have been anxious to push through large energy projects that have been delayed for years due to instability in Afghanistan, so this shooting incident is even harder to explain as it will likely upset Taliban officials.

Turkmen authorities and the Taliban will likely gloss over the event, but whatever happened it was sufficient for Turkmen troops to use their weapons -- a clear indication that trust is still very low along the border.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.

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