Threatened From Afghanistan, Turkmenistan Faces Serious Military Manning Shortfalls

By Paul Goble
Now threatened by both Taliban and Islamic State forces operating in northern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan has begun work to fortify its border with a six-meter-deep trench and a two-meter-tall wall (, February 24). But serious doubts persist about whether its own military has the capacity to defend the border or prevent the infiltration of Islamist forces into Turkmenistan and, beyond that, into other Central Asian countries.
For some years, Ashgabat has faced problems meeting its draft quotas. First of all, some 800,000 of its young men are working as migrant laborers in Russia or elsewhere. And second of all, Turkmenistan’s Armed Forces offer low pay, bad housing and food, and abusive commanders. As a result, many of the country’s military units are undermanned or include people who would likely run away rather than fight, according to Central Asian military analyst Akhmet Mamedov (, February 21).
At present, approximately 60,000 young Turkmenistanis enter the prime draft-age cohort per year. But in addition to those who go abroad to work, many have been receiving deferments if they go on to higher educational institutions. Eliminating those deferral options would be extremely unpopular. But their continued existence has reduced the annual draft pool to roughly exactly the number of men the army needs to take in. Furthermore, the government recently compounded its problems in this regard by decreeing that no one could serve in the military if he or one of his relatives had been convicted of a crime. That measure was taken to weed out those whose relatives might be involved in smuggling or anti-regime activities. But its impact has been to allow many young men to avoid service.
As a result, the government has been forced to try to hunt down anyone seeking to evade military service, to try to bring young Turkmenistanis home from abroad, and to block others from traveling or working abroad except under extraordinary circumstances. But even those measures have not been sufficient to fill the ranks, Mamedov says. And as a result, the military high command is now considering drafting individuals it had earlier excused for physical or mental shortcomings (, February 21).
Not surprisingly, as the government cracks down on draft evaders, and as the military tries to conscript ever more people to counter the looming threat from Afghanistan, corruption is flourishing. The cost of a bribe to be identified as someone “medically unfit” for service is now $500–600; and a bribe certifying that the bearer has already performed military service when, in fact, he has not, has risen to $4,000.
The state of morale inside the military is horrendous, the analyst says. Drug use and even drug trafficking, especially in units along the Afghan and Iranian borders, are now endemic; suicides are frequent, forcing the regime to cover them up; and desertion has “acquired a mass character.” Drug abuse is now so serious, Mamedov says, that Ashgabat has set up a special “military section” in the government’s national drug treatment center.

To change all this, and thus to field a fully manned and fully capable military, would require that Turkmenistan’s government carry out “deep structural reforms” and shift the military in the direction of a professional one. But given the size of the military, now estimated at more than 50,000 in uniform, the costs associated with such reforms are almost certainly beyond Ashgabat’s capacities. That may provide a tempting opening for Islamist militant forces in Afghanistan as well as a headache for Turkmenistan, Central Asia, Russia and all those concerned about these militant groups’ potential northward expansion.