Turkmenistan has called up military reservists to train on its border with Afghanistan following reports of recent skirmishes with Afghanistan-based militants.
On March 18 the Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) service reported that Turkmen reservists were being summoned to military enlistment offices to "undergo retraining" near Afghanistan. "In particular, several tens of people have been sent to Serhetabad (formerly Kushka) in the country's south in the past few weeks," ATN said, citing "reliable sources.” The soldiers are being housed in separate barracks without leave and are subject to strict military discipline, ATN said: "There is no more information but there is no talk of full mobilization. Our sources in Ashgabat haven't yet received summons to military enlistment offices."
The news service, run by exiled Turkmen opposition members, linked the move to recent violence on Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan. Afghan media reported on February 26 that a group of Taliban fighters had killed three Turkmen border guards. A Taliban source later denied involvement. ATN cited Turkmen sources saying the number of border guards killed may have been five.
Underscoring how instability has spread to the bordering provinces, on March 18 AFP reported that a suicide bomber on a motorbike killed at least 15 people at a crowded market in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan. There was no immediate claim for the attack.
News in this remote area of northwest Afghanistan – and in Turkmenistan generally – is difficult to confirm, but Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service (Azatlyk Radio) and RFE’s Qishloq Ovozi blog have been trying to untangle events with a recent series of posts pointing out that clashes on the 744-kilometer-border are common. Haji Mola Karim, a local Turkmen tribal leader in Afghanistan's Baghdis Province, which also borders Turkmenistan, told RFE on March 6 that the February 26 border incident was not an isolated case.
According to Karim, there was an earlier incident, sometime around February 10 – several people Karim described as Taliban fighters crossed the Murghab River, further upstream from Marchak, and entered Turkmenistan. Turkmen border guards shot one of them dead, wounded three, and captured two of the militants.
Karim said the Taliban gathered fighters together on the Afghan side of the river and threatened to attack. He said the Turkmen border guards then returned the body of slain fighter and surrendered the two captives to the Taliban.
Apparently that was not sufficient and the Taliban took revenge on the three Turkmen border guards a couple of weeks later.
On March 15 RFE said that a group of 120 ethnic Turkmens, led by a Turkmen commander named Gurbandurdy, are guarding the Turkmen-Afghan border on the Afghan side. Gurbandurdy, who said he has good relations with Turkmenistan, told Azatlyk:
I am commander of the Qarqeen district, I was the commander during jihad time, around 27 years ago. I continue to be the commander, because my people wanted me to be so. Groups like the Taliban started coming to our district, and killing our doctors and teachers. [...]
Most of the security posts on Afghan-Turkmen borders are ours. I am on good terms with Turkmenistan for a long time, I did not allow any infiltration during the period of jihad, or during the Junbish's time [when ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum was ruler of the town] and no threat will be posed to Turkmenistan. Godwilling everything is under control. Nothing has happened in the past, nothing will happen in the future. But Turkmenistan promised to build us a retaining wall. Since the Taliban arrived in the area of our village, Turkmenistan has stopped sending people and told us they would not send anymore. We ask them to help us.
Turkmenistan’s military is not famous for its skills and has little if any battle experience, so it will be interesting to watch events on this remote frontier in the coming months. Afghanistan is preparing to hold a presidential election on April 5 and NATO forces are scheduled to withdraw this year.