Turkmenistan and Afghanistan
Turkmenistan lies along the northwest frontier of Afghanistan, adjacent to the Afghan provinces of Herat, Badghis, Faryab, and Jowzjan. The 462-mile (744-km) border sits in a plain that extends from northern Afghanistan into the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen are a Turkic ethnic group that lives in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The total population of Turkmenistan is roughly 4.9 million. The Turkmen constitute 85 percent of the population of Turkmenistan. In Afghanistan, the Turkmen population accounts for 3 percent of the total, or approximately 1 million people. The Turkmen population in Afghanistan is concentrated mainly along the northern border with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Sharing the ethnic population translates into some cultural overlap between Turkmenistan and parts of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and Turkmenistan are predominately Sunni Muslim.
Turkmenistan’s foreign relations with Afghanistan have been limited in recent decades owing to the former’s isolation under the rule of the eccentric communist dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov was the head of the Turkmen Communist Party starting in 1985, and he declared himself “President for life” after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Niyazov ruled until his death in 2006, when he was succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Niyazov pursued a policy of strict neutrality in international affairs. This to a great extent shielded the Turkmen state from the unrest in neighboring Afghanistan, and thus the country has been spared from regional trends such as armed separatism and Islamic extremism. While the Niyazov regime generally had a positive relationship with the Taliban in the 1990s, it was supportive of the US-led invasion and maintains a good relationship with the government of Hamid Karzai. Nizayov’s successor President Gurbanguly Berhimuhamedov likewise has a good relationship with Afghan Prseident Hamid Karzai.
Coalition Supply Routes
The US and NATO are currently searching for alternate ways to supply their troops in Afghanistan through Central Asia. Recent unrest in Pakistan—through which up to 90 percent of coalition lethal and non-lethal supplies travel—has put that route in jeopardy, while the Kyrgyz decision to close the US airbase at Manas has called the northern corridor into question. Roughly 15,000 personnel and 500 pounds of cargo are transported into Afghanistan through Manas each month. Negotiations are underway to open a new supply route through Russia and the Central Asian Republics.
Afghanistan is responsible for more than 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium production, and 15 percent of the opiates produced in Afghanistan are smuggled through Central Asia on their way to Russia, Eastern Europe, and China. Furthermore, 20 percent of Afghan heroin, which accounts for more than 90 percent of world supply, is trafficked through Central Asia. However, because of the closed nature of Turkmenistan’s society, it is not known how widespread drug abuse and drug trafficking is there. Up until his death in 2006, Niyazov and his government refused to recognize that there was even a drug problem. It is believed that the Niyazov regime, or at least elements within it, facilitated drug trafficking from Afghanistan, and there is evidence to suggest that heroin abuse in the country is rapidly rising. Ashgabat, however, has recently made efforts to interdict drug shipments from Afghanistan, but this is complicated by the porous border and the rise of Herat as a major narco-trafficking hub.
Reconstruction and Development Aid
Turkmenistan, especially under the new President Berdimuhamedow, has played a small, but positive role in Afghanistan’s development and reconstruction. Ashgabat has delivered humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and forgiven much of Kabul’s debt for Turkmen electrical power. Turkmenistan continues to supply Afghanistan with energy at a deep discount, and Ashgabat has reconstructed a portion of the railway that will connect the two countries.
Turkmenistan is home to some of the largest undeveloped oil and natural gas fields in the world. Active pipelines exist going west across the Caspian Sea, north through Russia and South across Iran, but what Ashgabat has often wanted is access to India and the markets of Asia, which desperately need Central Asia’s energy supplies to sustain their rapid economic growth. The proposed Trans-Afghan natural gas pipeline, or the TAPI pipeline, named for the four countries that it would pass through (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) would bring natural gas from the Dauletabad gas field in central Turkmenistan along a highway to Herat in eastern Afghanistan and further to Helmand and Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. From there, it would go on to Quetta and Multan in Pakistan, terminating in Fazilka in northern India. The pipeline would be 1,680 km long (of which 735 km are in Afghanistan), and is estimated to bring an annual revenue of over $200 million to Afghanistan, along with the right for the country to use 500 billion cubic meters of natural gas for its own consumption.
President Karzai also hopes that the project will bring about 12,000 new jobs to Afghans. The construction of the pipeline, if materialized, could begin in 2010 and be finalized in 2015, with a total cost of $7.6 billion, according to the main sponsor of the project, the Asian Development Bank. But the TAPI vision is far from implementation for reasons including insecurity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, high prices demanded by the supplier and unreliability of Turkmen reserves, lack of adequate outside financing and the on again off again tensions between India and Pakistan.