Turkmenistan's armed forces are conducting unprecedented large-scale, unannounced exercises, an indication of the growing importance the country's government is placing on its defense.
The exercises began "in the dead of night" between Friday and Saturday, on a personal command of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to his senior military and defense officials, according to an account in the official state news agency. They continued through Monday, with no indication when they might end.
Turkmenistan's government tends to be secretive about its military (as it is with most everything else) but there has been an unmistakeable emphasis in the past several years placed on acquiring new weaponry and modernizing its armed forces. Meanwhile, all the navies on the Caspian Sea (including Turkmenistan) have been steadily building up their navies, and Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan has become increasingly unstable, with repeated skirmishes, incursions, and other bouts of instability on that border over the last three or so years.
All branches of Turkmenistan's military, including land, air, and naval forces, special operations and air defense, are involved in the exercise. The drills carried out included practicing air strikes against "enemy armed groups," anti-tank warfare, surveillance by drones, and naval surface-to-surface and surface-to-air fire "against various targets."
The naval component seemed especially important, according to the official news accounts:
In recent years many of our young countrymen have striven to enroll in the universities where our professional soldiers are trained, to join the ranks of those who guard the sacred borders of our Motherland and the peaceful labor of the Turkmen people. In the Era of Might and Happiness [which officially began in 2012 -- ed.] the prestige of the defenders of the fatherland has risen substantially. And for that, alongside other types of armed forces, those serving in the naval forces, protecting the borders of our fatherland on the Caspian, are especially appreciative to the leader of the nation Gurbanbuly Berdymukhammedov. Thanks to the attention the government has paid to naval forces in the framework of the program of development of the armed forces of Turkmenistan, systematically modernizing the material-technical foundations of the navy.
And so far the exercises are going well, the official accounts continue:
Officers and soldiers, following the personal example of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the country General of the Army Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in the mastery of contemporary military technology, are demonstrating their readiness for military action in any conditions. The soldiers yet again have demonstrated that they are a reliable shield of the Motherland, and closely following the direction of the president of Turkmenistan, in accordance with the defensive Military Doctrine of the country immediately and successfully carry out all tasks put before them of the defense of our sacred independence.
This being Turkmenistan, it's impossible to know whether any of that is true. But according to the exile news website Alternative Turkmenistan News, residents reported a noticeable mobilization: "on city streets and highways outside populated areas columns of armored vehicles appeared, men with automatic rifles appeared at the entrances and exits [of cities]." And for all of Saturday, there was no official word about what was happening, resulting in panic and the spread of alarmist rumors, the website reported.
The start of the drill was especially alarming to those close to the border of Afghanistan, where, ATN reported, "residents have for a long time been living in expectation of something alarming."
"When my husband was called urgently at four in the morning to his military unit, I thought in horror: now it's started," the wife of one officer on the border told ATN. "Only when my husband called and said that it's just an exercise did I say 'thank God, it's not a war.'"