Neither Turkmenistan, which has maintained a policy of strict neutrality since the 1990s, nor Tajikistan, which hosts a Russian military base on its territory, has a military force capable of resisting incursions by the Islamic State (IS), the Taliban or other militant forces emanating from Afghanistan. And unless something changes inside these countries or between them and their potential supporters abroad, it is entirely possible that the Islamic State will establish new beachheads in Central Asia.
The situation in Turkmenistan is especially dire, although Ashgabat’s domestic control of the media has meant that few have taken note of the impending disaster. Some analysts have called attention to the nature of the frontier region between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan—its enormous gas fields along the Afghan border make this area an especially likely target (Centrasia.ru, January 8). But there have been few stories about the disastrous security situation within the country and especially about the disintegration of its military in the face of challenges.
In recent weeks, some extremely troubling reports have been leaking out of Turkmenistan. Earlier this month, a small group of Taliban fighters attacked a Turkmenistani border post. Some of the Turkmen soldiers deserted with their weapons and others joined the Taliban forces. As a result, the Taliban group moved deeper into the country, taking prisoners and demanding tribute.
Ashgabat has tried to keep this quiet, but as Orazly Amanmyratov of Centrasia.ru points out, there have been too many such attacks and news about them is now beginning to appear abroad (Centrasia.ru, January 8). He suggests that there would be even more such stories except for one thing: many Turkmenistani border force commanders have been negotiating with the Taliban so that the two sides can continue to live next to each other—in much the same way that the first president of Turkmenistan achieved an armistice with the Taliban a decade ago. Unfortunately, the Turkmen analyst says, the Taliban are increasingly feeling their strength, while the IS forces in the region have little or no interest in negotiating when they believe they can achieve what they want by force.
“In contrast to the Taliban,” Amanmyratov writes, the IS forces “are more pragmatic and are not going to be satisfied with a little if they think they can get everything. And under this ‘everything,’ ” he says, “they have in mind the possibility of establishing their control over Turkmenistan’s gas fields,” much as they have done over the oil fields in Iraq. Ashgabat is counting on conflicts between the Taliban and the Islamic State to prevent this from happening, “but the experience of Afghanistan shows that whatever differences there are between the two groups, they are able to reach agreement and unite against a common enemy” (Centrasia.ru, January 8).
Turkmenistan’s government may have concluded that it has no choice but to negotiate. It has no foreign allies, and its military and other security forces are riddled with corruption and extremely weak. Young male citizens in this isolationist Central Asian republic are now paying up to $10,000 not to serve in the army; and in one district alone, over the past five years, 2,400 young men have avoided service. In response to the growing threat, Ashgabat has eliminated most deferments, raised the upper age for the draft, and boosted pay. But this is almost certainly too little too late. On the one hand, corruption has penetrated the military, thus reducing its effectiveness as a force; and on the other, all the ills of the Soviet military—including dedovshchina (systematic hazing of newer recruits by older soldiers and officers)—have not only survived but intensified, making the army more of a prison than a force. Indeed, Amanmyratov says, Turkmenistan’s army is prepared only for “capitulation.”
The situation in Tajikistan is not much better. While it does have the backing of Moscow in the form of a Russian military base on its territory, Dushanbe’s army today is “small, poorly trained and badly armed,” according to Tajik analyst Khurshed Asliddin. And the forces across the Afghan border are just as ready to exploit the situation, although because of topography and the absence of huge gas fields, Tajikistan is perhaps a less tempting target for them (Centrasia.ru, January 8).
Tajikistan’s army numbers approximately 15,000. Its weapons are leftovers from Soviet times. The country lacks any air force to speak of, and the fighting spirt of the officers and men has been largely destroyed by corruption and the legacies of the civil war, which ravaged the country in the 1990s. In fact, Asliddin argues, today “Tajikistan is the weakest link among the countries having common borders with Afghanistan” (Centrasia.ru, January 8).
The presence of a Russian military base, with between 5,000 and 7,500 uniformed personnel and more modern weapons, might appear to counterbalance the negative situation of Tajikistan’s own forces. But Asliddin says that may not be the case. On the one hand, because of the collapse of the economy there and the return of Central Asian guest workers from Russia, many in Tajikistan view the Russian troops as occupiers rather than allies, something that reduces their utility as a defense force. And on the other, Moscow may have its own reasons, including budgetary ones, for avoiding any military action there. Consequently, Tajikistan too is very much at risk.
The growing proliferation of alarming articles like the ones cited here may be intended to force Ashgabat and Dushanbe to seek help abroad—from Russia in the first instance. But if that does not happen and if no one else comes to their aid, the possibility that the Islamic State could make significant land gains in one or both is likely over the next few months.