As EurasiaNet has reported about payments the U.S. made to Turkmenistan to use its airspace in violation of normal procedures, the Central Asian regional press has begun to ask questions about the U.S. relationship with the Central Asian countries assisting the Northern Distribution Network. Stories are beginning to surface that indicate more questions need to be asked.
In a special report in Russian for the Turkmen exile website gundogar.org, Viktor Prudnikov questions whether the Turkmen government's arrangement with the U.S. to allow goods to be transited across its territory to support troops in Afghanistan has in fact violated Turkmenistan's much-publicized position of neutrality. Prudnikov is not identified on the website, but he appears to be the same retired army general and commander-in-chief of the Russian Air-Defense Forces who used to be in charge of relations with other CIS countries. Gundogar.org's editor Arslan Mamedov says he was unable to confirm the author's identity and it could be a pseudonym.
That lets us know we need to assess his claims and motives with a grain of salt, but Prudnikov rightly asks whether the U.S. government has taken advantage of the fact that Turkmenistan is a closed and autocratic society to quietly get away with shipping more than just humanitarian goods to Afghanistan. He also cites reports of incidents involving U.S. planes flying from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan without dispatchers' permission. These claims have not been made by any other regional or international journalist or verified by EurasiaNet.
The U.S. press makes a caricature of Turkmenistan, says Prudnikov, making it seems like a "Stalinist Disneyland" with its rotating gold statute of the dictator, its ancient mysteries and cunning intrigues. American diplomats express concern about religious freedom and the need for a civil society and improved conditions for Turkmen prisoners. Yet in practice, Americans quickly realized that the lack of transparency, the rule of law, and protection of private property, combined with heavy taxes, corruption, and black-market currency exchanges create ideal conditions to conduct business in Central Asia for the sake of the war in Afghanistan.
American diplomats praise their American Center in Ashgabat and American facilities in Dashoguz and Turkmenabad, says Prudnikov. "In fact, the Pentagon exploited the pathological greed of Turkmenbashi [past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov] to draw his neutral state into the most dubious and 'dirty' deals, which in any other country and under other conditions would be deliberately exposed and judged by the world community," he says.
From the onset of the Afghan campaign, the Pentagon was happy to drop American principles as a promoter of democracy in order to gain access to Turkmenistan's strategically-important airfields, believes Prudnikov. Turkmenistan has played an "invaluable role" in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For his part, Niyazov dropped his former friends in the Taliban and agreed to allow the U.S. military transport aircraft to fly from the civilian airport in the city of Ashgabat in order to refuel planes ferrying humanitarian freight to Afghanistan. Prudnikov questions whether all the freight was humanitarian. According to unnamed sources he cites within Turkmen intelligence agencies who were charged with monitoring the freight, "at the international airport [in Ashgabat], the Americans created a closed terminal, to the territory of which we had no access and could not check whether these loads corresponded to their humanitarian purpose."
There are numerous witnesses, Prudnikov says -- although he does not cite them -- who claim that U.S. freight transited through Ashgabat is in fact military in nature and even constitutes criminal contraband. Airport employees claim they saw armored vehicles, combat helicopters and crates of ammunition. These reports challenge both the notion of Turkmen neutrality and the supposed nature of the bilateral agreement between Turkmenistan and the U.S.
Prudnikov also says that in 2003-2004, American military aircraft flew from Afghanistan to Ashgabat without permission from Turkmen dispatchers and upon landing, U.S. troops kept the plane under armed guard, according to their instructions. There are reportedly five incidents, says Prudnikov, where U.S. special troops even used weapons. The parents of two Turkmen teenagers who happened to be wounded in crossfire near the perimeter of the air terminal were given written instructions not to divulge any information about these incidents, he claims.
The U.S. has gained access to use almost all the military airfields of Turkmenistan, including the airport in Nebit-Dag near the Iranian border, which was reconstructed at American expense. In September 2004, at the Mary-2 airfield, U.S. military experts appeared and began reconstructing the facility with the help of Arab construction companies, which provoked the protest of Moscow, says Prudnikov. Turkmenistan reiterated its neutral status and said it would not be joining any military blocs nor permitting any military bases from foreign states on its territory. But the terminal at the Ashgabat international airport and the Mary-2 airfield are not "military bases" but "subsidiary support bases" [«вспомогательные опорные пункты»] so Turkmenistan can preserve its neutrality.
Prudnikov claims to have reports that the transport of drugs from Afghanistan and the transport of prisoners to the secret prisons maintained by the U.S. in Eastern Europe were coming through these transit points in Turkmenistan.The $3 billion that Niyazov maintained in foreign bank accounts came from somewhere, he implies. "It was precisely the Pentagon that found a means to secretly transfer funds to the dictator to German banks for such important political intimate services," he claims.
Since 2002, air fuel has been sent by rail through Turkmen territory to the northern border towns of Turgundi and Hayraton in Afghanistan, destined to the U.S. Army fuel supply center, which is a contractor of the Defense Department for fuel deliveries. When Niyazov died, Prudnikov says U.S. military and diplomats made a flurry of visits to Ashgabat to re-establish the same arrangements with President Berdymukhamedov. While Turkmenistan is variously described as being "lost" by Russia and the U.S. and "won" by China, Turkmenistan continues to serve as one of the major transport links of the Northern Distribution Network to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan is a country the falls under U.S. law on defense allocations for 2010 which encourages active cooperation with the countries of Central Asia to extend the delivery routes across their territories. An American military contingent is located in Ashgabat to oversee the operations related to refueling of military airplanes. NATO is also trying to open up a land corridor to bring freight by road and rail, says Prudnikov.
Both the Foreign Ministry of Turkmenistan and the U.S. State Department have declined to comment to journalists about military cooperation between the two countries. A gundogar.org reader, Vladislav Korolev, in a note on the website's forum, has asked the new U.S. Charge d'affaires Lynne Tracy to comment on the veracity of the piece.