Turkmenistan’s Deviated Approach to the Taliban Explained
Author: Dante Schulz
Sep 8, 2021
Turkmenistan has deviated from the rest of the international community. Unlike its neighbors, the Turkmen government has been careful to remain neutral in the Afghanistan conflict, paving the way for it to enjoy proper if not particularly warm bilateral relations with a Taliban leadership taking charge in Kabul, despite Ashgabat’s visceral apprehension of Islamist governments.
The rapid takeover of Afghanistan’s government by the Taliban sent shockwaves throughout Central Asia and the rest of the world. Western countries are scrambling to safely evacuate tens of thousands of their citizens and Afghan nationals who aided their governments. The United States evacuated more than 50,000 people from the country August 14-23 and neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan repatriated 25 and 14 citizens respectively. In addition, bordering countries, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are bracing for the possibility of violent encounters with the Taliban and a resurgence of domestic religious extremist groups supported by the organization. Both countries have welcomed Russian troops to conduct joint military drills in anticipation of this resurgence. However, while most countries in Central Asia and worldwide await the consolidation of the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan rather anxiously, Turkmenistan has adopted a more cordial approach.
Despite the 497-mile shared border between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Ashgabat has made no noticeable attempts to evacuate its diplomatic staff in the country. Its embassy in Kabul and Consulates General in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif are operating normally. Border traffic is also continuing with trucks carrying essential goods crossing the border daily. Moreover, unlike its neighbors, Turkmenistan has not considered a repatriation mechanism for ethnic Turkmen in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan has carefully avoided openly criticizing the Taliban and its leadership. Its nonalignment strategy, based on the principle of “positive neutrality”, mirrors its approach to the Taliban in the 1990s. During the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan instructed journalists to self-censor any criticism of Afghanistan and of its government. In addition, Ashgabat maintained close, while unofficial, ties with the Taliban. This included repatriating ethnic Turkmen fleeing the conditions of Taliban rule back to Afghanistan. The relationship between Turkmenistan and the Taliban, although subdued, remained constant for the next two decades – so much so that Turkmenistan was considered a promising location by the Afghan High Peace Council to hold peace discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban in 2010. Relations between the Taliban and Turkmenistan recently reignited when members of the Taliban met in Ashgabat in July. Although details of the meeting are scant, it was revealed that the Taliban assured Turkmenistan that it would not target any natural gas pipeline projects, particularly Ashgabat’s much desired Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.
Turkmenistan has prioritized the expansion of pipeline networks throughout the region to funnel its natural gas exports to new markets. Turkmenistan already possesses pipelines to transport natural gas east to China, south to Iran, and north to Russia, but Ashgabat has been eager to inaugurate pipelines that link Turkmenistan with South Asian markets. Stalled projects, such as TAPI, were designed to help Turkmenistan diversify its customer base.
Turkmenistan’s reluctance to condemn the Taliban suggests that it hopes to continue to construct TAPI, even if it means coordinating with the Taliban leadership. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen noted the importance of the TAPI gas pipeline and spoke favorably about projects underway to build new railroad lines and a 500-kilovolt electrical line to deliver power from Turkmenistan to Kabul. The TAPI gas pipeline project, however, is seriously jeopardized by Western investors’ and financiers’ reluctance to risk capital in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Ashgabat’s historical ties with the organization grant it license to negotiate freely and to secure assurances that border operations can remain functional. Furthermore, working alongside the Taliban may enable it to continue pursuing its natural gas and petroleum product export agenda without major security disruptions. That said, Turkmenistan’s different approach could well thwart any plans to formulate a unified regional stance on how to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, increasing tensions with its neighbors while simultaneously potentially increasing Turkmenistan’s to a source of extremism on its southern border. A unified regional stance could mitigate the harmful impacts of the Taliban’s rapid resurgence to power and heighten Central Asia’s involvement on the global stage.