Turkmenistan beefs up border security after Taliban incursion

Ashgabat is taking preventive measures after what is presumed to have been a Taliban ambush that killed three Turkmen border guards.

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

2014-03-05

ASHGABAT – A recent Taliban incursion is propelling Turkmenistan to beef up border security.

Militants late February 26 apparently crossed into Turkmenistan from Badghis Province and killed 3 Turkmen border guards.

The two-hour skirmish in the Tora Shaikh region also injured two people, according to Mohammad Qasim Angar, deputy police chief of Badghis Province.

Another security official confirmed that the incident happened on the Turkmen side of the border and said the attackers were Afghan Taliban.

A Turkmen consulate in Afghanistan confirmed the incident, Afghan media reported. The Taliban, meanwhile, have denied responsibility.

Although Ashgabat has not said anything publicly about the attack, a March 1 exercise at the site of the ambush could reflect tacit Turkmen concern over border security.

"On this day [March 1], on this stretch of the border, [Turkmen forces] conducted training and field exercises, during which they fired training volleys against a hypothetical foe," Turkmen state media reported, though it didn't tie the exercise to the ambush.

Taliban test Turkmen defences

Turkmen border forces are watching for more challenges by militants.

Batyr K., a Turkmen State Border Service officer stationed on the Afghan border, characterised the situation on the 744km-long Turkmen-Afghan border. "It's never been calm there, but lately it's become alarming," he said.

He spoke of increasingly frequent cases in which armed groups, whose members appear to have combat training, trying to cross into Turkmenistan from Afghanistan.

In February alone, Turkmen border guards had two clashes with suspected Taliban militants. Several weeks before the February 26 shootout, Turkmen border guards killed one Talib and detained two others. They later repatriated the body and the two detainees, the officer said.

"These are not drug smugglers ... nor are they spies or saboteurs," Batyr K. said. "These are genuine militants."

Angar said the militants were effective only because it was an unexpected and unprovoked attack.

If Turkmenistan and the militants were to ever engage in an organised or prolonged fight, "I am sure they [Turkmenistan] would melt down the Taliban in minutes," Angar said.

Preventive measures and official silence

Turkmenistan typically does not speak publicly about the prospect of terrorism problems, however a security official talked of isolated incidents and the country's handle on the situation.

"This will not get out of hand, and we will take all the necessary counter-measures, like strengthening the border and giving our personnel special training," Suleiman R., a senior counter-intelligence officer in the National Security Ministry, said.

Border guards and police are heading to vulnerable segments of the border to help reinforce security, while the Foreign Ministry and the Turkmen agency for foreign intelligence are establishing contacts with Afghan officials and with ethnic Turkmen elders in the Afghan provinces of Faryab, Jowzjan, Badghis and Herat.

In order to be reduce the likelihood of the Taliban making further inroads into Turkmenistan, the government is deploying reinforcements to patrol border towns, Suleiman R. said.

At the beginning of February, a Turkmen delegation headed by Vepa Hajiyev, a deputy foreign minister, conducted secret negotiations with ethnic Turkmen elders living in Afghanistan, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen service reported February 18.

"It is now important to ensure that ethnic Turkmens in Afghan border areas are [friendly] to Turkmenistan and not taking up arms alongside radical Taliban militants," Suleiman R. said, adding that Ashgabat is carrying out such work.

Sharifullah Sahak contributed to this report.

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