Will ‘Islamic State’ tip the balance in Turkmenistan?

Due to its long border with Afghanistan and its weak security forces, Turkmenistan is vulnerable to a jihadist offensive.

By MICHA’EL TANCHUM
November 5, 2014 23:29
Turkish-Syrian border

A black flag belonging to the Islamic State is seen near the Syrian town of Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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While energy-rich Turkmenistan is poised to become the next economic tiger of Central Asia, it has come under a growing threat from the Taliban since NATO’s troop drawdown in neighboring Afghanistan. Forces from the Taliban and various multi-ethnic, Central Asian jihadist militias associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have been concentrating in northern Afghanistan near the Turkmenistan border, producing unprecedented border clashes with Turkmenistan’s military during 2014. IMU leader Usman Ghazi’s recent declaration of allegiance to Islamic State (IS) raises the concern that IS might assist the opening of a new jihadist front.

Background


With the world’s fourth largest proven reserves of natural gas, currently estimated at 24.3 trillion cubic meters, along with an estimated 80.6 billion barrels of oil in unproven reserves, Turkmenistan is poised to follow Kazakhstan as Central Asia’s next energy exporting economic powerhouse. In January 2014, Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov announced that his government would intensify its efforts to raise foreign investment in Turkmenistan’s energy sector to achieve the government’s goal of doubling Turkmenistan’s natural gas production by 2020 on the way to achieving an annual production rate of 250 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2030.

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Designating most of the increased gas production for export, Turkmenistan seeks to emulate the success of Kazakhstan’s energy export-driven economic development program that produced a tenfold increase in Kazakhstan’s per capita income within a decade. Following Kazakhstan’s pattern of a carefully constructed “multi-vectored” foreign trade policy, Ashgabat is seeking to maintain its autonomy from Russia by deepening its economic relationship with China, counterbalanced by developing its economic cooperation with the European Union and Turkey.

Like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan’s sustained growth will be reliant on its relationship with China. A consortium led by China’s state-owned National Petroleum Company (CNPC) developed Turkmenistan’s Galkynysh gas field, the world’s second largest.

CNPC will be the sole service contractor for the second development phase at Galkynysh. Signaling Turkmenistan’s strategic cooperation with China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, Ashgabat and Beijing signed the China-Turkmenistan Friendly Cooperation Agreement in May 2014.

As part of the Sino-Turkmen relationship, Ashgabat will supply Beijing with over 65 bcm of natural gas, constituting 20 percent of China’s gas imports. To increase Turkmenistan’s export capacity to China, the Central Asia-China gas pipeline will expand with the construction of two additional lines traversing different routes from Turkmenistan to China’s Xinjiang province.

Turkmenistan also represents an important alternative source of natural gas for both EU members and Turkey as they seek to alleviate their dependency on Russian imports. Turkmen natural gas is expected to reach Europe via Turkey through the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which is expected to become operational in 2018. Turkey’s Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has already publicly declared Ankara’s intention to incorporate 5-6 bcm of Turkmen natural gas into the TANAP project.



As Turkmenistan seeks to diversify its natural gas export markets via TANAP in order to maintain its autonomy from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, Turkmenistan has deepened its cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan. On May 26, 2014, the foreign ministers of Turkmenistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan conducted their first-ever trilateral meeting.

Held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, the summit represented an important milestone in the rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Focused on enhancing energy and security cooperation, the foreign ministers agreed to hold trilateral meetings biannually and develop a two-year “action plan,” which will be discussed at their next meeting in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat.

Additionally, in October 2014, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) commissioned a feasibility study for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline as part of the ADB’s effort to establish a consortium to construct the pipeline by 2018.

The so-called “Peace Pipeline” will economically benefit all the participating nations, particularly energy-starved Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Implications

With its rich resources and its geostrategic role in providing affordable and reliable supplies of energy to regions as diverse as Turkey, Afghanistan and Xinjiang, Turkmenistan is an attractive target of opportunity for jihadist militants operating in the larger Turkic world. Turkmenistan’s regular military stands at about 30,000, with recent estimates suggesting that its ground forces consists of 18,500 soldiers. Similarly, Turkmenistan has a small air force consisting of only two squadrons of fighter aircraft. While capable of repelling incursions of small armed groups, Turkmenistan would be unable to withstand a sustained offensive by a larger force of jihadists.

The upswing in militant violence against Turkmenistan began in February 2014 as Taliban forces crossed the Turkmenistan border from Afghanistan and clashed with Turkmenistan’s military, leaving three soldiers dead and two wounded. Although the Taliban leadership subsequently renounced the attacks and blamed local Afghan warlords, Turkmenistan replaced its regular border troops with elite special forces.

Turkmenistan shares a 744 kilometer border with Afghanistan. This border region, encompassing the provinces of Jowzjan, Faryab, Badghis and Herat on the Afghan side is home to one million Turkmens.

Anticipating a new round of instability in its border regions, Ashgabat began contemplating the possibility of placing troops on the Afghan side of the border as a buffer zone in order to prevent further incursions and support the local Afghan Turkmen population.

In April, hundreds of Taliban fighters swept into Faryab province, capturing 13 villages. Renewed clashes between Turkmenistan’s military and the Taliban broke out in May, resulting in the deaths of three solders. In June, Turkmenistan’s military reportedly began the construction of fenced ditches and armed checkpoints along the border starting in Faryab province, leaving the local Turkmen population in Afghanistan to their own fate. The Taliban and allied jihadist groups control large segments of the border in Faryab and Baghdis provinces. In August, additional clashes reportedly occurred farther north in Jowzjan province, involving approximately 100 Taliban fighters.

The Taliban push into Central Asia from Afghanistan is being coordinated with militias associated with the IMU. The IMU’s renewed focus on Central Asia is partially the result of a Pakistani military offensive in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e Azb was launched in response to the June 7, 2014, terrorist attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, conducted by Central Asian fighters affiliated with the IMU and coordinated by the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan’s military offensive focused on the North Waziristan militant strongholds of Miranshah and Mir Ali where IMU fighters are based, causing the Central Asian jihadi militias to refocus their operations to Afghanistan and the bordering nations of Central Asia.

Recognizing the emerging threat, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent trainers to Turkmenistan in late August. The 45-day OSCE course focused on providing officers from Turkmenistan’s State Border Service with high-level education in tactical patrolling to improve their units’ skills in detecting and interdicting illegal cross-border movements. Maintaining 12,000 personnel, Turkmenistan’s State Border Service is about one-third of the size of the regular forces of the Turkmenistan’s army and constitutes a critical part of the nation’s defenses against a largescale, militant offensive.

Conclusions


Due to its long border with Afghanistan and its weak security forces, Turkmenistan is vulnerable to a jihadist offensive. Many fighters from Islamic State hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In addition to the prospect of attaining vast energy resources, Turkmenistan’s geography offers the added appeal for IS of opening a corridor into the region. Consonant with their high battle tempo on the tactical level, IS has already demonstrated a strategic proclivity for quickly opening new fronts when their progress is stymied in a particular area.

As IS is being pushed back in Iraq and has become bogged down in the battle for Kobane in Syria, it may turn its attention to Central Asia. Lacking a significant defense relationship with either Russia or the US, Turkmenistan represents the soft underbelly of the Central Asia-Caucasus region. Given the IMU’s new affiliation with IS and IS’s own large contingent of fighters from the broader region, a reasonable possibility exists that IS would support an IMU-Taliban offensive on Turkmenistan. Bolstered by IS support, that would provide a serious challenge to Turkmenistan’s outmatched security forces.

The author is a Fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units, Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University. He also teaches in the Departments of Middle Eastern History and the Faculty of Law of Tel Aviv University. This article was first published in The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

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