nCa News and Commentary
Ashgabat, 16 October 2015 (nCa) — President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, at the end of his summit talks with President Putin Thursday in Astana, raised concerns about the security situation at the border of Turkmenistan with Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan wasted no time in refuting the statement and issued a press release, clarifying the position.
Here is the translation of the press release issued by Turkmenistan on 15 October 2015:
“On 15 October 2015, in Astana, during a joint briefing of the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan, the president of Kazakhstan, referring to the security situation in Central Asia, talked about certain incident, which allegedly took place on the border of Turkmenistan.
“In this regard, the Turkmen side expresses its utmost concern about the misunderstanding in connection with the statement of the president of Kazakhstan about the border situation of Turkmenistan, which is not true.
“We also consider it necessary to state that the official position on this issue had been repeatedly voiced in the press and on various regional and international platforms.
“Based on the foregoing, the Turkmen side registers its strong protest and, on the basis of the traditionally brotherly relations between our two countries, expresses the hope that in future, when assessing the situation around Turkmenistan, the Kazakhstan side will be guided by more objective information.”
nCa Commentary by Tariq Saeedi
This question is floating around like a Kongming lantern, propelled by hot air being pumped imaginatively and furiously by the western and Russian media.
The mystery here is as to why President Nazarbaev, a genuine friend of Turkmenistan and a great statesman, cared to raise the concern about the Turkmen-Afghan border. With his experience and influence, it would have been easy to ask the Turkmen government to arrange a visit by a Kazakh delegation to look at the border and learn about the ground realities first hand.
It would have been even easier to just pick the telephone and talk to his Turkmen counterpart to get insight into the media hype.
Why this question, why now, and why through the media?
This whole slab needs to be cut into thin slices for easy consumption.
A considerable part of the summit talks between Nazarbaev and Putin was devoted to exchange of views on the extremist tendencies in Islam and how to tackle them before any damage to the region.
Russia is concerned because of its past experience with the uprising in Chechnya and the current thrashing about in Syria, where the US-led coalition is helping create an extremist state. The anxiety about Syria is very authentic because no matter how moderate the rebels are, they eventually turn into something resembling ISIS simply because of the particular brand of ideology that drives them. There are no moderate terrorists. They can pretend to be moderate but not for long.
On the other hand, the humiliating rout of thousands of armed and trained Afghan soldiers when faced by a rag tag band of Taliban in Kunduz is also worrisome for the entire region, including Russia and Kazakhstan.
Therefore, the current situation in Afghanistan is a separate element and let’s set it aside for later use.
The next thing to consider is the media campaign chauffeured by RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and Sputnik. RFE/RL is under guardianship of the US Department of State and Sputnik, even though semi-private, voices the opinion of official Kremlin.
Consequently, all the reporting about the ISIS presence and perceived threats to Turkmenistan, is emanating from the two capitals which are otherwise at loggerheads: Washington and Moscow.
As happens in all the major breaking news, the media outlets with global reach follow up the story and vie with each other to get the details to the consumers of information. The gathering of ISIS at the Turkmen borders should have been a big story but there is just nothing from anyone except RFE/RL and Sputnik.
The curious fact that only RFE/RL and Sputnik seem to know about ISIS at Turkmen border is the second element and let’s place it for the time being alongside the first element.
Moving further, we see that even though the USA and Russia can barely talk to each other on most issues but their official media is in synch as far as ISIS presence on Afghan borders with Central Asia is concerned. At least 14 stories including 5 pseudo-analyses have appeared in the western and Russian media recently, lamenting the presence of ISIS and the vulnerability of the Turkmen borders.
Now, let’s put the statement of President Nazarbaev about security situation in Central Asia at the centre of the table and scatter some questions around it.
Here are the logical questions that must be answered:
- Did Nazarbaev make the statement on the request of Putin?
- If so, did he question the quality of the Russian information and verify it through his own sources before taking the ownership of the idea that security situation at the Turkmen border is really precarious?
- Was the statement made to encourage the regional consensus on the need for a joint action?
- Was it a probe to induce Turkmenistan to discard its neutrality and join a regional security organization?
Faced with these questions, let’s return to the current situation in Afghanistan and put it on the table to look at some finer details.
- There are credible reports that the Taliban are gaining upper hand in Afghanistan; by some accounts some 70-80% of the Afghan territory is under the Taliban sway. The government has very weak writ except in major cities.
- The trio of Dr. Abdullah, Amrullah Saleh and Ustad Atta is acting against the interests of Afghanistan. They disrupted the recent peace process. They are the main source of ISIS rumours. And, they are hindering the national dialogue in every which way.
- Mulla Mansour has almost consolidated his grip on Taliban leadership. With very little internal strife and the boost of confidence gained by the Kunduz victory, he has announced the terms on which he will come to the negotiation table: total withdrawal of occupying forces. This contrasts with his earlier statement that there would be no negotiation. The difference is that a few weeks ago he was on shaky grounds and today he feels confident.
- Taliban and Al Qaeda see no scope for partnership with ISIS. As a matter of fact, Taliban have already killed to nominated heads of ISIS in Afghanistan. Despite similar ideologies, there are no common grounds for Taliban and ISIS to live under the same banner.
The picture we can gather so far is that the situation in Afghanistan is definitely unsteady and the days of the Ghani-Abdullah coalition could be numbered. However, there is no way to conclude that ISIS is just about to strike Turkmenistan.
The second element that we put aside i.e. the RFE/RL-Sputnik hype about ISIS at Turkmen borders, needs to be brought to the table now.
If these mythical 3000-4500 ISIS fighters have gathered near the Turkmen border, and are currently lying low without causing any incident, the question is who has counted and catalogued them? Who has been watching all of their movements? Who is maintaining them?
RFE/RL and Sputnik don’t bother to deal with these annoying questions. Their entire stress is on spreading fear and confusion.
If we buy their propaganda for a New York minute, the questions is: What next?
If these ISIS forces enter Turkmenistan, they will be easily liquidated in a day of carpet bombing because of the open territory. Will they enter Turkmenistan merely to commit suicide?
If the assumption is that they will capture oil and gas installations of Turkmenistan and start selling the oil and gas products to sustain themselves, this is not even a good joke. Turkmenistan is not Syria or Iraq.
Moving under the same assumption, if ISIS enters Turkmenistan, will they obtain the public support, considering that they will have neither a common language nor any cultural kinship with the local population. The public would in fact be utterly hostile to the very idea of ISIS operating from the Turkmen territory.
Actually, this is a simple either-or situation: Either ISIS is there or it is not there.
If ISIS is there on the Afghan territory close to the Turkmen border, why has the combined strength of one million of the Afghan national army, the paramilitary forces and the warlord armies not raised even a small finger against them as yet.
Moreover, what action have the US-NATO forces, with their shock and awe capabilities, taken so far to confront ISIS?
Nothing has been done simply because there is no ISIS.
Furthermore, the right address for raising the questions about the situation in Afghanistan is the Afghan government and the US-NATO coalition, not Turkmenistan.
In order to understand the reasons behind the joint American-Russian propaganda about ISIS at Turkmenistan, and to answer the questions raised earlier, we must look at some possibilities.
Here are some likely explanations, mostly speculative in nature:
- The TAPI (Turkmensitan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project is about to start in a couple of months. The Americans are enraged that Turkmenistan has refused to give their IOC darlings ExxonMobil and Chevron any mainland PSA for this project. It is the case of sour grapes; it is the case of the bully disrupting the game when not allowed to play by his own terms.
- China is rising on its economic strength and good-natured policies. The USA doesn’t like it and may go to any length to interrupt the China-Central Asia partnership. Looking at the past history, some group may actually appear, posing as ISIS and fully funded and armed by the USA, to try to play havoc with the Central Asia infrastructure.
- The USA, with dwindling options in Afghanistan, is desperate to acquire some airport or at least a drone base in Turkmenistan. The best way to do that, by American mindset, is to frighten Turkmenistan into submission.
- Russia is eager to fill the emerging vacuum in Afghanistan. It would very much like to station back its forces along the Central Asia-Afghanistan borders. This desire may not necessarily be hegemonic in nature. It could be a kind of insurance against the permeation of negative tendencies and securing Central Asia, which is the underbelly of Russia.
- Russia is categorically against the idea of a Trans Caspian pipeline and this could be a bargaining tactic from the Russian side to prevent Turkmenistan from foraging into the European gas markets.
These are all speculations and it would be best for the regional governments to join hands to separate fact from fiction.
The relations of Turkmenistan with both Kazakhstan and Russia are very robust. There are several layers of mutual trust. There are a number of ongoing processes of bilateral and multilateral partnership. This statement of President Nazarbaev, when taken in proper context, should not be a source of alarm. Nevertheless, there is the need to enhance communication from all sides to remain on the same page.