Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov attended the high profile Galken 2008 military exercises held in the Kelete training range on May 5. Turkmenistan conducted these exercises with an “antiterrorist dimension” both to boost its international image as a neutral country taking the threat of terrorism seriously and to showcase selected facets of its armed forces. The exercises were publicized at length on Turkmen television and witnessed by numerous foreign ambassadors, in order to display positively the country’s counter-terrorist capabilities and reassure foreign investors that Turkmenistan is able to cope with sudden emergencies. However, the scenario, tactics, equipment and forces used during the exercises provided an insight into Turkmen security thinking as well as revealing areas of immaturity in the planning and tasking of these forces.
First, the scenario was predicated on the penetration of Turkmen territory by foreign terrorists from a neighboring country, taking local hostages and making ransom demands including access to a helicopter and $20 million. Turkmen authorities agreed to negotiate with the terrorists, while security forces planned a military response. Having received their money, the terrorists freed some hostages and took those remaining to the helicopter to fly to a third country. At this point in the scenario, Turkmen military intervention led to a successful resolution of the crisis with all terrorists “killed” and no hostages harmed (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, Ashgabat, May 5).
The tactics used revolved around locating, isolating and destroying the terrorists. It should be noted that the planned intervention was led by the military, suggesting that the Turkmen security establishment thinks in terms of using the armed forces internally to deal with such an emergency. Of concern are the types of equipment used and the composition of the forces, which point to a potential overreaction on the part of the state in any such crisis. Indeed, the Turkmen military rehearsed firing at mock groups of terrorists from both air and land using Su-25 jets, Mi-8 helicopters, tanks and missile launchers. This could be open to Western criticism of the excessive “Soviet” style of the exercises, but what was, in fact, much worse: the exercise seemed to project a show of force using outdated tactics, aging equipment and a military-first approach to dealing with the situation. Also, it was evidently misconceived in terms of the ease with which the “terrorist forces” were neutralized by the use of large-scale military intervention. The exercises seemed oblivious to the challenges and difficulties faced by small specialist counter-terrorist units operating in neighboring Afghanistan against a highly sophisticated and shadowy enemy capable of utilizing diverse tactics and exploiting fast moving, momentary weaknesses in the forces pitted against them (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, Ashgabat, May 5).
Berdimukhamedov was shown on Turkmen television inspecting some of the apparent advances in the armed forces, including “advanced equipment,” mostly communications assets, new uniforms for Special Forces and Interior troops, and equipment and machinery acquired for use by the border guard service. He also examined examples of guns seized by border guards from border trespassers, which suggests arms and armed traffickers are getting through the border, although reporting on this is tightly controlled by the state. Berdimukhamedov promised further modernization of the armed forces and made political statements about his commitment to combating terrorism aimed more at the audience of foreign dignitaries than indicating any systemic counter-terrorist policies or security sector reforms. The Turkmen leader intimated that the next such military exercises would be held in the Caspian Sea. (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, Ashgabat, May 5).
On May 6 Berdimukhamedov signed a resolution on improving the effectiveness of the Interior Ministry to help “ensure the supremacy of law and order and legality, protect the lives, health, rights and freedoms of the citizens and the interests of the state and society, [as well as to guard] all forms of ownership and public order, preventing and uncovering crimes.” The document also ordered the Interior Ministry to establish a quarterly magazine to be entitled Asudalygyn goragynda (Safeguarding peace) (Turkmen TV Altyn Asyr Channel, Ashgabat, May 6). The military exercises and the new Interior Ministry magazine have a common theme: enhancing the public image of the state’s ability to deal adequately with modern security threats.
Despite the gradual opening up of the country in economic terms to Western investment and interests, the Turkmen military and security forces will prove the toughest of all the state structures to reform in ways suited to the needs and requirements of a modernizing Turkmenistan. These exercises indicate that few within the regime have any clear answers about how to advance national defense capabilities. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has arguably been the Central Asian country least subject to the terrorist threat, which may change with the appearance of Western investment in its energy infrastructure and recognition that as it opens its internal travel to promote freedom of movement and assist economic development, it also becomes easier for foreign terrorists to move about in Turkmen territory.