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With the appearance of Taliban detachments in northern Afghanistan, concern is growing on both sides of the Turkmen-Afghan border.
By Dzhumaguly Annayev
MARY, Turkmenistan – Ethnic Turkmens in northern Afghanistan are taking up arms to protect Turkmenistan from the Taliban.
Residents of Karkin, Faryab Province, stand ready to defend their homes and protect the border with Turkmenistan from encroachment by Taliban fighters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service reported March 11.
The Karkin men are taking up arms to address the situation brought about by the emergence of Taliban militants in the region, Gurbandurdy, a former insurgent field commander who fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), told RFE/RL.
"They [the Taliban] arrived about six months ago and wanted to impose their ways here," he told RFE/RL. "But when they began kidnapping and killing innocent Karkin villagers and also making raids across the border, the elders asked me to form and command an armed resistance force."
Karkin hopes for flooding assistance in exchange for their work
Relations between the communities on both sides of the Amu Darya River, which serves as the border, are excellent, so Gurbandurdy's force protects not only Karkin but the nearby segment of border, other Turkmen-Afghans say. Gurbandurdy's heavily armed 120-man force is known to have beaten back several attempts by the Taliban to take over the border zone.
"We pushed the Taliban back from the village and from the border," Nurjan, one of the anti-Taliban fighters, said. "It's now much more peaceful here. But they could return in greater numbers, so we're hoping for practical assistance from Turkmenistan."
In exchange for their work safeguarding the Afghan-Turkmen border, men such as Nurjan are hoping for the Turkmen government to help them secure the border and to prevent periodic flooding by the Amu Darya River, which destroys homes, crops and livestock.
Turkmenistan was ready to help, but flood prevention work ceased when the Taliban began fomenting trouble in the region, he said.
"We'll keep the Taliban out of Turkmenistan, but we [hope for something] in return," he said.
It is not calm everywhere
The situation is relatively tranquil in zones where formal or informal forces like Gurbandurdy's are keeping the peace on the Afghan side, Turkmen State Border Service officer Batyr K. said.
In such places, nobody has fired on Turkmen border guards or tried to smuggle drugs, he said, adding that some clashes with militants and drug smugglers have occurred on the 744km-long frontier.
"Recent reports to Border Service HQ are full of border violations, whereas they used to be quite rare," he said.
However, some signs indicate that the situation on the Afghan border is not calm, residents of Mary Oblast say.
Recently, for example,Turkmen authorities have barred freight trains from operating on the railway from Serkhetabat (formerly Kushka) to Turgundi, Afghanistan, workers at the Mary railway station said.
"Nobody knows the reasons, but everybody thinks it was done to protect railway crews and property," railwayman Serdar Esenov said.
Aware but unafraid
Though Turkmen authorities don't typically discuss border clashes, local residents are fully aware of the issue.
Annameret Khakyyev, a resident of Taggabazar, Mary Oblast, told Central Asia Online that he and other local residents heard stories of a February 26 Taliban attack. Media reports have varied on the number of casualties, but at least three Turkmen border guards are thought to have been killed.
The population is generally confident that troops and anti-Taliban detachments will keep militants from crossing into Turkmenistan, Khakyyev said.