Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov steps out of a truck and, after posing for pictures, takes aim at several targets, first with a rifle, then a handgun, and lastly throwing knives. He then calls in helicopter strikes during the military exercise. The video, which first aired on Turkmen State TV, gained prominence after the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a dissident website, satirized the original by editing in clips of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, a 1985 movie.
Especially with the Commando footage and music, the video emphasizes “the absurdity of the situation in Turkmenistan,” said Ruslan Tuhbatullin of the Chronicles of Turkmenistan when speaking to the media.[i] Even so, the video also exemplifies the degree to which the Turkmen government is worried about developments across the border in Afghanistan.
The immediate purpose of the show of force is likely to project security ahead of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which feature participants from dozens of countries. Regarding the video, Eurasianet reported, “[T]here is every chance that [President Berdimuhamedov] is in a state of profound anxiety about preparations for the 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which will take place over 11 days in Ashgabat in September.”[ii] Ashgabat carefully controls its image and is hoping for the event to proceed without a hitch.
There are no known specific security threats for the games (it is unlikely Ashgabat would reveal as much even if there were), but the military situation in neighboring Afghanistan is a significant source of concern for the Turkmen government, despite Ashgabat’s assertions to the contrary,[iii] and will continue to be a source of unease moving forward. Every border province has experienced clashes between Afghan security forces and the Taliban or the local Islamic State (IS) cell in 2017. In early August 2017, Taliban and IS fighters, usually rivals, reportedly cooperated jointly in an attack on Afghan security forces in Sar-e-Pul Province,[iv] which is adjacent to several provinces on the border with Turkmenistan.
For the most part, Turkmenistan has sought to avoid getting entangled in the conflict across the border, emphasizing its policy of neutrality, in place for over two decades. Nevertheless, the situation has not always been contained. In 2014, a clash between Turkmen border guards and Taliban militants left three Turkmen guards dead and two more wounded.[v] More recently, in late July 2017, a source in the Turkmen Ministry of Defense told Azatlyk, RFI/RL’s Turkmen-language service, that four IS fighters had been apprehended after crossing into Turkmenistan from Herat Province.[vi] It is likely that Turkmenistan has sought to cultivate allies among local anti-insurgent commanders in Afghanistan, despite the neutrality stance. Azatlyk interviewed a pro-Afghan government paramilitary commander in June 2016 who had recently spent time in Turkmenistan, along with other security officials from border areas.[vii]
Given Turkmenistan’s opacity, it is difficult to determine the number of Turkmen nationals involved in militant activity. In early 2015, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence ascertained that as many as 360 Turkmen nationals had traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight in militant groups.[viii] As the Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, fighters may relocate to Afghanistan or seek to return to Turkmenistan. The four militants reportedly apprehended earlier in 2017 had previously fought for the IS in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, a pair of terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan, to the north of Turkmenistan, in 2016 demonstrated the danger posed by prospective militants who are unable to travel abroad to fight and are thus relegated to domestic attacks.[ix]
Turkmenistan does not face an existential threat from insurgents across its border or from radicalized nationals, but a terrorist attack would shake the country’s image. Ashgabat places a premium on stability, and the government’s ability to provide security is a major source of legitimacy for President Berdimuhamedov, who utilizes the honorific title “Arkadag” (protector).
President Berdimuhamedov himself will not be on the frontlines against militants, but his military video did show off some of the military systems the Turkmen military would put to use in the event of an attempted incursion from across the border. With a DA42MPP special mission aircraft providing surveillance, a pair of armed AW109 helicopters fired rockets during the military exercise. Several Dongfeng EQ2058s (these are similar to HMMWVs) and NIMR Ajban 440s made for rapid deployment of troops to counter simulated militants. An image subsequently released showed an Otokar Cobra, the two Ajban 440s, an Achleitner Survivor II, and a pair of BMC Kirpis (as well as four RM-70 multiple launch rocket systems).
Though only limited scenes of the exercise were shown in the video, Turkmenistan has clearly sought to improve its rapid response capabilities through the acquisition of new hardware and more training. The Turkmen military is largely untested in direct fighting, but Ashgabat is hoping that the show of force, combined with the emphasis on neutrality, will be enough to deter insurgents.
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[i] Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Activists are trolling this gun-toting dictator with parody videos,” Mashable, August 4, 2017. http://mashable.com/2017/08/04/turkmenistan-viral-video-parody-trolling/
[iv] Mujib Mashal, Fahim Abed, and Najim Rahim, “Joint Taliban-ISIS Attack Kills Dozens, Afghan Officials Say,” The New York Times, August 6, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/06/world/asia/taliban-islamic-state-attack-afghanistan.html
[v] Pajhwok Afghan News, “Taliban kill 3 Turkmen border guards,” February 27, 2014. http://archive.pajhwok.com/en/2014/02/27/taliban-kill-3-turkmen-border-guards
[vi] Bruce Pannier, “Is There A Terror Threat In Turkmenistan?” RFE/RL, August 1, 2017. http://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-turkmenistan-terror-threat-afghanistan-islamic-state/28653368.html
[vii] Bruce Pannier, “Neutral Turkmenistan Chooses A Side In Afghan Conflict,” RFE/RL, June 23, 2016. http://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-afghanistan-neutrality-policy-punctured/27815538.html
[viii] Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, January 26, 2015. http://icsr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan-conflict-1980s/
[ix] Reid Standish, “‘Our Future Will Be Violence Extremism,'” Foreign Policy, August 1, 2017. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/01/central-asia-kazakhstan-eurasia-terrorism-extremism-isis-al-qaeda/