Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 203

President Saparmurat Niazov, who single-handedly determines Turkmenistan’s policy, is staying neutral both de jure and de facto with respect to the American-led war on terrorism. His official stance runs counter to Washington’s, which holds that the antiterrorism campaign brooks no neutrality. Niazov, however, cites Turkmenistan’s UN-approved status of permanent neutrality to justify his aloofness from the antiterrorist coalition.

From the outset of the U.S. air campaign, Turkmenistan has restricted air and overland transit rights to humanitarian cargoes only. American planes based in NATO Europe are regularly overflying Turkmenistan with food and other humanitarian relief goods en route to Uzbekistan, air-dropping at least some of those cargoes over Afghanistan. While authorizing the overflights, Turkmenistan is hardly in a position to ascertain their contents, yet the arrangement enables Ashgabat to uphold its official neutrality and avoid Taliban threats of reprisal.

The Taliban authorities are firmly in control on the Afghan side of the Turkmen-Afghan border along its entire length of some 800 kilometers. More than 1 million Turkmen live in that part of northern Afghanistan. They have not joined the “Northern Alliance.” The authorities in Ashgabat are concerned to avoid an outbreak of hostilities there that might set off a refugee exodus of Afghan Turkmens.

The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, Laura Kennedy, has expressed satisfaction with Turkmenistan’s role in transiting international relief consignments for Afghanistan. Niazov, for his part, cautioned the United States against causing civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the course of air operations (Neytralniy Turkmenistan, October 24). All this suggests that Niazov is trying to position himself as a mediator, in the event that the conflict drags on inconclusively as winter sets in.

Even with the anti-Taliban civil and international war in progress, Niazov has not given up his pre-September attempts at mediating a political accommodation between the Taliban and their adversaries. Renewing that offer on October 19, Niazov declared to a joint session of the Turkmen Elders’ Congress, People’s Council and National Revival Movement: “The worst thing is that the Afghan people are fighting each other. We suggest solving the tension by negotiations, by peaceful means. We strongly believe that all internal discord, or guilt ascribed to Afghanistan, will be solved peacefully. [Making] Peace in Afghanistan will bring us great prestige. We are doing our best via the UN and are working toward establishing peace” (Turkmen television and radio, October 19).

On a visit to Ashgabat, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, appeared to bow to Niazov’s mediating ambitions. After praising Turkmenistan’s cooperation with UN humanitarian activities in Afghanistan, Oshima declared: “Turkmenistan’ s neutrality, and its performance in the humanitarian field, are placing Turkmenistan’s president in a unique position to play a constructive role in the search for a lasting solution and peace in Afghanistan” (Turkmen television, October 22).

On November 1 in Ashgabat, a delegation of the European Union’s presidency held talks with Niazov on Afghanistan relief issues and on putting together a postconflict Afghan government. Niazov urged that the Pushtun be strongly represented in such a government–a stance apparently calculated to qualify him as a go-between (AP, AFP, Interfax, November 1; see the Monitor, September 18). Niazov’s standing in the region, however, was dealt a blow by the defection and revolt of his most senior diplomat.