A source tells EurasiaNet that the US government is reevaluating its approach to Turkmenistan, a country with shaky state structures and ruled with an iron hand by the mercurial President Saparmurat Niyazov. The chief concern is that Islamic radicals in neighboring Afghanistan may utilize Turkmenistan's porous borders to elude US retaliatory strikes.
Some observers believe Turkmenistan, given its poorly patrolled frontier with Afghanistan, could emerge as the primary destination for Afghan refugees fleeing the impending US blitz. It would be easy for Islamic radicals, including those associated with terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, to blend in with civilian refugees and "permeate" Turkmenistan, the EurasiaNet source said.
US officials worry about Turkmenistan's willingness to cooperate on addressing immediate security concerns. Niyazov has a reputation for an erratic leadership style, and in recent years has taken steps to isolate Turkmenistan from the outside world. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives.] In addition, Turkmenistan's foreign policy is stridently neutral, and it is one of the few countries to reach out diplomatically to the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that controls about 90 percent of Afghanistan.
Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said convincing Niyazov to conform with US strategic plans could prove difficult. "He [Niyazov] will be very difficult to influence," Olcott said. "There are really no levers."
Since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1992, Niyazov has developed an authoritarian system, establishing a cult of personality that evokes comparisons with that which surrounded former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Turkmenistan is an arid country of about 4.6 million people whose territory is slightly larger than the state of California. It has an abundance of natural resources, including vast natural gas reserves, which have yet to be developed.
Some observers doubt Niyazov will alter Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality, despite the region's emergence as the focus of the US-led anti-terrorism effort. Consistent with Turkmen neutrality, Niyazov is unlikely to grant foreign military forces access to Turkmen military facilities, including the base at Ak-teppe, near the capital Ashgabat and an airforce base near Mary.
So far, Turkmenistan has not experienced a spread of Islamic radical activity, such as that found in Uzbekistan, where government forces have battled insurgents of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for the past three summers. Turkmens have traditionally adhered to a more mystical, non-orthodox version of Islam, known as Sufism. The Sufism movement spread throughout the region in the late Middle Ages, appealing especially to nomads. It combines Islamic beliefs with traditional Turkmen customs.
Considered heretical by Orthodox Muslims and discouraged during Soviet times, Sufism nevertheless has retained its appeal among modern-day Turkmens. Niyazov has followed a secular state-building path. At the same time, he has fostered a broad Islamic cultural revival, including state assistance for the construction of mosques.
Concerning the civil war in Afghanistan, in which the Taliban has fought against a coalition of forces known as the Northern Alliance, Turkmenistan has been careful not to take sides since 1995. Nevertheless, Niyazov has developed ties with the Taliban. In February 1999, then-foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov traveled to Afghanistan, where he met with the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The talks reportedly focused on the possibility of building a pipeline to export Turkmen gas to Pakistan through Afghan territory.
As the fourth richest nation in the world in terms of gas reserves, Turkmenistan's future depends on the development of a pipeline to export natural gas. Although nothing came of these discussions, Turkmenistan has sought to closely cooperation with Pakistan since 1992. In 1994, for example, Turkmenistan concluded an agreement concerning the preparation of Turkmen military pilots and other specialists in Pakistan.
In an address to foreign diplomats this February, Niyazov suggested that sanctions against the Taliban should be eased. "Give them a chance to create a state, to create the structures of state governance, a united power, a structure of parliament," he said.
Niyazov has emphasized that the border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan has been the quietest of Afghanistan's borders and that it has been without incident. Nevertheless, there have reports of a few armed skirmishes, and numerous drug-trafficking-related incidents in recent months.
In comparison to Tajikistan, which relies on Russian border guards to patrol the Afghan frontier, Turkmenistan's 840-kilometer (about 500-mile) Afghan border is much more penetrable. With 1 million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan, military action by the United States could send tens of thousands of refugees streaming across the border, with Turkmenistan's military unable to manage the flow. An influx of refugees from Afghanistan combined with increasing dissatisfaction with Niyazov's authoritarian regime could ultimately damage Turkmenistan's fragile stability.
A number of observers have expressed concern over President Bush's statement that the United States will not differentiate between the terrorists and those who harbor them. The director of Harvard University's Forum for Central Asian Studies, John Schoeberlein, voiced concern that indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan could fuel anti-American sentiment in the region, encouraging Islamic radicalism. At the same time, Schoeberlein said that if the United States can capture or eliminate bin Laden's terrorist organization without causing massive civilian casualties and destruction, many in Afghanistan and Central Asia would breathe a sigh of relief.
Rustem Safronov is the special correspondent to the United States of Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), and a frequent contributor to the BBCs Russian and Central Asian Services. He worked in Turkmenistan during the Soviet period for the State Archives and for the Central Committee of Komsomol in Ashgabat where he hosted television and radio programs about the history of the country. From 1993-1996 he was special correspondent to the Duma, and political commentator for Russian State Televisions "Vesti" program. He has written, hosted and directed two television programs about Turkmenistan broadcast nationally on RTR. He has published widely in all of the major Russian press, and contributed a chapter on "Islam in Turkmenistan" for The Center for Political & Strategic Studies book "Islam in Central Asia." He received his MA from Moscow State Historical Archive Institute, and graduated from Moscows Super Komsomol Schools Department of Journalism.