Ata Khaidov, Independent researcher (Ashghabad, Turkmenistan)

The dramatic events of 11 September became a turning point not only for Afghanistan, but also for many other countries. The geopolitical importance of Afghanistan and future developments in this country will significantly affect the whole region. It is obvious that the unstable situation in Afghanistan has impeded the development not only of Afghanistan itself, but of other countries as well, not to mention the threat of Talibanization in Central Asia. Moreover, this region became one of the largest global manufacturers and distributors of illegal drugs.

Conversely, peace and stability in Afghanistan will have a positive effect on the whole region. As the most feasible transport route, a stable Afghanistan has the potential to become the center of international trading systems. Such stability would provide an opportunity to diversify energy resources of neighboring countries, and in doing so, diminish their dependency on monopolistic energy transport systems. Central Asian countries, in particular Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, could profit from another route to the worlds oil and natural gas energy markets. However, there is a high risk that the peace-building process in Afghanistan can be accompanied by the emergence of new tensions.

U.S. Interest in Central Asia

It is no secret that countries such as the United States, Russia, Iran and Pakistan have special interests in Central Asia. The presence of these countries in the region is stronger than ever. In fact, a struggle over the spheres of influence has emerged. The events of 11 September and the global response have placed the United States in a position of dominance.

The Central Asian countries offered their territories to American troops in exchange for financial support and training of national armies by the U.S. For example, the U.S. uses military air base in Khanabad and CIA also installed signal intelligence posts in Uzbekistan.1 Turkmenistan was the exception. This was due not to the purported reason of its much acclaimed neutrality, but because it is a totalitarian regime, which is very wary of foreign presence on its territory.

Recent years indicate that American policy in this region was not particularly successful, because it was based on the neutralization and weakening of certain countries such as Iran and Russia.

Initial support by America and Pakistan of the Taliban, and American attempts to become a key regional player, even while conducting a policy of isolating Iran and Russia, began a new cycle of political tensions. Some are calling this the new Great Game2 in reference to the 19th century imperial struggle for control over Central Asia and paths to India.

Against a background of the U.S. policy regional leaders were comfortable in justifying their own questionable activities. For example, the overt, as well as covert, cooperation of Turkmenistan with Taliban. This included trade, intense sales of oil products, smuggling saying nothing about drug trafficking. These relations were in direct support of a known terrorist regime.

Russian and Iranian Response to American Influence

The unstable situation in Afghanistan was to a certain degree convenient for both Russia and Iran. The Russian presence in Tajikistan opened a new chapter in the strengthening of Russian influence in the region. The financial embargo imposed on Iran, the war in Afghanistan and a Unified Gas Pipeline System provided Russia good political leverage in the region. Yet, at the same time, the transparent borders of Central Asian countries were opened to the drug trafficking that continues to plague Russia. Iran also was suffering from drug trafficking, but was hopeful that it eventually could make up for this by becoming a transit country earning billions in transit duties. One should not forget, however, that Iran was one the first countries to denounce Taliban regime.

Russia and Iran were not interested in alternative routes for other countries to export their gas, which would give the U.S. an opportunity to strengthen its position in the region. Despite the fact that during the initial project in 19973 one Russian company was included in the consortium to build a pipeline, Russia was a participant but did not hold a majority of shares. The American Company Unocal played the major role. The CentGas consortium initially include the following companies, either directly or through affiliates: Unocal Corporation, 46.5 percent; Delta Oil Company Limited (Saudi Arabia), 15 percent; the Government of Turkmenistan, 7 percent; Indonesia Petroleum, Ltd. (INPEX) (Japan), 6.5 percent; ITOCHU Oil Exploration Co., Ltd. (CIECO) (Japan), 6.5 percent; Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co., Ltd. (Korea), 5 percent; and the Crescent Group (Pakistan), 3.5 percent. RAO Gazprom (Russia) has indicated an interest in signing the consortium agreements formalizing a 10 percent share in the project in the near future.

Russia and Iran played a major role in torpedoing the Trans-Caspian pipeline project, which was in fact an American attempt to introduce themselves into the region. Russia boycotted the Caspian Sea issue and also made positive changes in her policy toward export of Turkmen gas via the Unified Pipeline System in order to decrease Turkmen interest in the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline.4

Financial embargo could not stop Iranian cooperation with neighboring countries as well as countries of the European Union. Swap deals on oil and LPG with Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were a usual practice.

Post 9/11 developments in the region indicate that Russia and Iran intend to strengthen their position in the region. The 12 July, 2002 commissioning of the new battleship Tatarstan with sophisticated modern weapons to guard borders was not the sole demonstration of Russian military strength.5 Recent military exercises on the Caspian Sea were yet another show of strength and ability to quickly react to any event in the region.6 Russias public show of strength and regional influence, especially this modernization of the Caspian fleet have been the simple and rational response to the American presence in Afghanistan.

At first glance, it appears that Russian actions are intended for Iran, but this is a serious misconception. Russias demonstration of her potential force and determination to stand her ground in the region and not give away any positions to nonregional power and especially to the U.S. is intended for an American audience. This is a symbolic answer to 8,000-strong American contingent stationed in Afghanistan, and an attempt to pressure pro-western Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan on the other hand is still uncertain with its so-called neutrality. Under the auspices of the war against terror Moscow undertook militarization of the region via quasi-military organizations including a Russian Anti-Terrorist Center, Caspian Sea region special military troops and the Collective Security Treaty.7 Moscow also opened the new monitoring station Window in the Tajik Mountains of Pamir to track and determine ownership of various satellites in space.8

One also should not forget that Russian-Iranian cooperation is far stronger than Russian-American is. Cooperation in the area of nuclear energy despite protests from the U.S.9 can have far-reaching impact. It is obvious that Russia and Iran are allies. Iran as well as Russia is interested in military cooperation. In the event that America has military success in Iraq, Iran will be flanked by either American troops or pro-American governments, which is highly undesirable for Iran. That is why Iran will try to strengthen its position in the region and without a doubt will be in coalition with Russia.

Russia raised a question about collective defensive forces on the Caspian Sea to promote mutual trust between regional countries.10 The Iranian expert on the Caspian Sea problems, Mohammed Ali Talebi Hakiani noted11 the possibility of collective defensive forces transforming into some form of strategic alliance on the Caspian Sea. There is a real creation and strengthening of cooperation, which could become a powerful alliance. That is why the aggressive U.S. policy toward Iran is a waste of time, and is in fact helping to create ideal conditions for Russia and Iran to make an alliance on major Central Asian issues.

Russia has used the Caspian Sea issues as an excuse to step up its presence in the region. This is not only a show of Russias desire to remain a superpower and regional authority, but it was a response to the American presence in the region following the events of 11 September.

Russias decision to undertake militarization of the Caspian Sea was preceded by a series of events.

  • American support of a Trans-Caspian pipeline with simultaneous isolation of Iran and Russia.
  • Post 9/11 events in Afghanistan.
  • The increased American role in the region.
  • Collapse of the Caspian Sea status negotiations.
  • The Turkmen Presidents request to the United Nations to resolve the issue, which amounted to intervention of third parties.12
  • The meeting of President of Turkmenistan with Secretary of Defense of the U.S. Donald Rumsfeld on 28 April, 2002 to discuss providing technical assistance to secure borders as part of the program to prevent proliferation of WMD ratified by the U.S. Congress.13 (Government of Turkmenistan signed an agreement to participate in this program in January of 2002.)

All these events became an impetus to massive militarization of the region, which began from the Caspian Sea. The legal status of the Caspian Sea became tied to adjacent problems, most specifically the Afghan question.

Russia took serious and practical steps to prevent further increase of the American influence in the Caspian Sea region. That is why the present situation in no way is helpful in resolving the issue of legal status of the Caspian Sea; it is an ideal excuse for Russia to increase military presence in the Caspian Sea, to create new leverage and to assist in maintaining her status quo. This, in combination with continued U.S. isolation of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil,14 could endanger oil production and exports. More seriously, it has the potential to bring the region to the brink of military conflict.

Central Asia and Afghanistan

Special attention should be paid to the policies of Central Asian countries. While helping build peace in Afghanistan, world powers and the U.S. in particular should not ignore the fact that Afghanistan is surrounded by countries where democracy and basic human rights are not part of national policy. This is characteristic of all countries in the region and especially of Turkmenistan. Eventually the U.N. will have to make a clear distinction between neutral status and actual national policy. Ignoring by the U.N. the dictatorial regime in Turkmenistan is in fact discredit of the U.N. itself. Also, there is still a danger of Islamic fundamentalism in some Central Asian countries.

Cooperation between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan15

Briefly highlighting the relationship between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan demonstrates that greed and personal ambitions at the expense of national security were at the base of these relations.

- Development of foreign economic relations between Turkmenistan and Afghanistan began in 1992 and in 1996 cooperation between the two countries increased, despite the fact that Turkmenistan preferred not to advertise this fact even in the already highly politicized official statistical data.

- Since 1996, Afghanistan, or the Taliban to be exact, was among the top 10 of the countries importing Turkmen goods. In spite of its poverty after two-decades of war, Afghanistan was able to actively trade with Turkmenistan.

- Exports to Afghanistan far exceeded imports from it. These were paid for exclusively in hard currency never resorting to barter operations or purchases on credit as it was with other more successful neighboring countries. Payments for the goods in the country where a banking system was not in existence were made in cash

- This was in a time when the whole world and every neighboring country except Pakistan were denouncing its regime. The U.S. soon changed its policy and in July 1999 introduced economic sanctions against Taliban regime.16 The U.N. Security Council in Special Resolution also imposed sanction against Taliban for the sponsoring of international terrorism.17 But Turkmenistan, hiding behind its neutrality status, continued economic cooperation with the Taliban and actually increased its exports to Afghanistan. The major Turkmen export item to Afghanistan was gasoline, which was essential to fight war. The export situation drastically decreased after the events of 11 September. Without the Taliban, there was no more money.

The government of Turkmenistan has skillfully manipulated with its neutrality status. Although questions were raised, officially Washington avoided discussing this issue. It was apparently understood that access to the region could be attained via Turkmenistan and so the U.S. continued conducting its liberal policy toward Ashghabad. However, if the U.S. remains silent and continues to ignore the situation in Turkmenistan it could be costly.

Turkmenistans Domestic Situation

Under certain circumstances, the countrys abundant natural resources could become a serious liability, and thats what is happening in Turkmenistan. In other words, the country is becoming a hostage of its own richness mainly due to Niyazovs policy. The policy of spending gas and oil revenues for the last 5-7 years (oil and gas dollars) reminds us an experience of African countries but in an uglier form. A declining economy, institutionalized corruption and wide scale book cooking continues to prevent the country from gaining its bearings. Any signs of alternative thinking are severely persecuted, and a brain drain continues at an increasing speed.

There is wide scale construction of palaces and objects of infrastructure, which are redundant and unnecessary at this time (airport, roads and railroads leading to nowhere). Ambitious projects and productions, which cannot be economically justified, are being built with gas and oil dollars and on credit, which will be covered by future payments from possible cooperation with Afghanistan. Future generations will have to pay for these policies.

That is why to guess what the future economic cooperation with Afghanistan will bring is hard to say. Potential for development of the region and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in particular is enormous.

  • Creation of unified energy system.
  • Using Afghan territory for transit of export and import goods.
  • Export of electricity, liquefied gas and construction materials.
  • Construction of oil and gas pipelines through Afghan territory.

Implementation of such projects and the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan- Pakistan pipeline could become a strong impetus toward development of the region and Afghanistan in particular. Nevertheless, this is only a potential possibility and daily realities must be considered.

Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Pipeline Project

An agreement of 31 May, 200218 between the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the construction of oil and gas pipelines is certainly not the first and not the last in the series of similar agreements. The possibility of their construction remains remote and the statement made by the President of Turkmenistan that such a pipeline would be constructed by year 2004-2005 remains only a hope at this time.19 It seems impossible to complete the proposed pipeline in such a short period of time, even if all other issues such as political instability in Afghanistan, creation of consortium, organizational and financial aspects are resolved.

The countries that intend to build a pipeline are as follows:

  • Turkmenistan possesses gas, but has no money to construct even its own part of the pipeline. The country has huge debts and a policy of ever increasing borrowing; further strengthening the totalitarian regime.
  • Pakistan has a deficit of energy resources. It has financial issues and conflict with India as well. Moreover, projects economic potential is fully realized provided it extends toward India.
  • Afghanistan is a country, which is unable to support even its own existence. It is far from stable, just started creating government institutions saying nothing about other vital infrastructures for realization of such a project (banking system in the first place). Moreover, according to the estimates of the World Bank,20 it would require 15 billion dollars in the first five years to rebuild Afghanistan. In a country with a high level of unemployment, problem number one is creation of jobs, not the financing of risky pipelines, which will bring future profits. At this point, objects of infrastructures such as pipelines can only become perfect civilian targets for those opposing the new government.

One also should not forget that the Iran-Pakistan pipeline bypassing Afghanistan is still being discussed, which will completely negate the usefulness of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline.

Preliminary Conclusions and Further Questions

- Central Asia continues to be a dangerous place. The largest companies will not be as optimistic as the leaders of the regional countries.

- Despite the fact that financial resources are somewhat under governmental control, they are in economic terms a scarce resource, which tends to flow to the areas which promise returns, yet it is difficult to artificially direct that flow to the high risk areas even if the desire of political leaders to do so is strong.

- It is also problematic that financial institutions will finance a project the risk of which they cannot even assess. It is obvious that support of such international organizations as the U.N. will not minimize the existing risks.

- Statements of some leaders and western analysts21 that construction of the pipeline will create jobs in the region are incorrect. Gas export is not a labor-intensive business. High employment could be guaranteed only by creation of specialized paramilitary security systems to protect the pipeline.

- While the world remains fearful of possible new terrorist attacks there is a growing regional impatience with the presence of American troops in Afghanistan where it is quite simple to assassinate members of the government, such as recent series of attempts to kill Hamid Karzai. The character of this region must be acknowledged. Despite a history of internal war, Afghanis have shown that when threatened from outside the various factions will respond by joining forces. This phenomenon and these details of regional history are frequently ignored.

- Even if the proposed pipeline is completed, how can it benefit Turkmenistan?

As a result of the present economic system, future generations will be carrying the debts and will be engaged in restructuring a post-Niyazov economy. Niyazov shows no signs of settling for the current number of mosques, temples and monuments. The idea of an artificial lake, which would cost several billion dollars, is not the last thing that is planned for Turkmenistan. That is why huge amounts of money will be directed into these projects and the strengthening of the oppressive military machine to protect the regime. In the last two years there has been a drastic increase in the number of both staffers and non-staffers working for KNB (KGB), call up age was lowered to 17 years; in the fall of 2002 full mobilization of reservists was initiated.

- The example of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline is a good example of what happens when basic trends underlying the development of the region and situations in these countries are ignored.22 The projects purpose was not to develop the region but to quickly pump out resources for short-term gain.

- The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline has the potential to similarly support dictatorial regimes designed to enrich and protect themselves. The western policy of looking the other way allows this. Turkmenistans appeal to the U.N. to support the project23 is in fact an appeal to the U.N. to support the totalitarian regime of Niyazov.

- Even if the construction of the pipeline becomes a reality there is a serious question about the roles of Russia and Iran in such a project. Will the U.S. continue to include Iran in an Axis of Evil? Without resolution of these issues, we will find ourselves with a situation even more serious than the Taliban, because in this scenario the two strong countries, Russia and Iran, are involved, which unlike the U.S. have been historically controlling this region.

- What about drug trafficking? During the signing of the agreement between the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the construction of oil and gas pipelines the President of Turkmenistan in his speech noted that we are not trying to enrich ourselves at your expense, and we wish Afghanistan peace.24 Was this just an implication that other countries could enrich themselves at the Afghan peoples expense while building a gas pipeline or was it an indirect admission of the fact they cashed in on drug trafficking at the expense of Afghanistan?

As the leader of neutral Turkmenistan, Niyazov characteristically refused to participate in the summit of Central Asian countries and Russia held in Kazakhstan25 (6 July, 2002, Aktau). One of the central issues discussed was a measure to curb drug trafficking through Central Asia, especially in a year like this one when the poppy crop in Afghanistan was extremely good.


If the U.S. undertakes a mission to build a peaceful democratic nation and to promote development in the region it should not limit itself to Afghanistan. It should not remain blind to what is happening in other countries. If present trends continue, it is only a matter of time before new problems will arise among Afghanistans neighbors. In considering this, one must take into account the political unpredictability and inconsistency of regional leaders and their ability to create serious tension in the region.

It is clear that without mutual cooperation and a change in American policy toward Iran, Russia and Central Asian countries it will be impossible to reach regional peace and stability. In considering its policies toward the region, the U.S. should consider the big picture and lessons of past experiences such as the Taliban. The cost of solving one problem should not be the creation of another. The current policy of neutralization and weakening of Russia and Iran, which have been influencing the region for centuries, is naïve and will definitely not help to reach peaceful resolution.

One also should pay attention to Turkmen-Iranian relations and their close economic cooperation. Iran holds 4th place in Turkmenistans trade.26 After the 11 September events, Iranian diplomatic activity increased. In February 2002, there was an agreement between Turkmenistan and Armenia to export gas to Armenia through the Iranian territory. Such a project could become a reality in the near future, thanks to an already existing pipeline in Iran, but the capacity of this pipeline should be subsequently increased.

It is highly unlikely that Turkmenistan will prefer American (non-regional power) friendship to Iranian.

As the strongest power in the region, the U.S. has the greatest influence. On how the U.S. will take on the leadership role of finding constructive means for discussion and collaboration, especially including Iran and Russia, will depend the resolution of many regional problems. In other words, the outlook for the regions future will rely upon American resolve, long-term commitment and wise foreign policy of the U.S. toward regional countries.

* * *

After this article was sent for publishing a series of events have happened which supported authors arguments about the danger of Turkmenistans totalitarian regime for the security of the whole region.

Real nature of the 25 November assassination attempt on Niyazov is still unknown, nonetheless it is a sign that the totalitarian system gave a crack. Subsequent events uncovered the real face of totalitarian system in Turkmenistan: repressions against opposition, violence and violation of international norms and regulations, accusations made by Niyazov against Uzbekistan, barbaric search of the Embassy of Uzbekistan, and subsequent extradition of the Uzbek ambassador. Everything calls for a serious review of the policy of world powers (the U.S. in particular) toward totalitarian regimes in Central Asia in order to avoid further aggravation of the situation in the whole region.

1 See: Bezzhalostniy sosed. Dosie na spetssluzhby Uzbekistana, 6 August, 2002 [http://www.agentura.ru/press/about/jointprojects/versia/uzbekistan/].
2 A. Rashid, Taliban Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, 2000.
3 See: Informatsionnoe soobshchenie, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 27 October, 1997.
4 See: N. Badykova, Turkmenistans Quest for Economic Security, in: The Security of the Caspian Sea Region, Oxford University Press, 2001.
5 See: Yu. Nikolaev, Storozh podnial volnu. Spushchen na vodu flagman Kaspiiskoi flotilii, Izvestia, 13 October, 2002 [http://izvestia.ru/economic/article/20971].
6 See: V. Volkov s ispolzovaniem materialov ITAR TASS. Bolishoi Kaspiiskii redut. Rossia namerena oboroniat svoe iuzhnoe podbriushie [http://izvestia.ru/politics/article22359].
7 See: Signatories to the CIS Collective Security Treaty to Boost Cooperation, RFE/RL Newsline, 25 May, 2001; CIS Security Pact Signatories Agree to Create Joint Force, RFE/RL Newsline , 12 October, 2000; Shanghai Forum United on Regional Stability, 14 June, 2001 [http://english.pravda.ru/world/2001/06/14/7709.html].
8 See: Spetssluzhby Tadzhikistana, 23 August, 2002 [http://www.agentura.ru/opponent/sng/tagik].
9 See: Anger at Russian-Iran Nuclear Ties, 1 August, 2002, Moscow, Russia (CNN) [http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/uerope/08/01/russia/iren/indexhtm].
10 See: Rossia predprinimaiet serieznye shagi, chtoby vosprepiatstvovat prisutstviu tretikh sil v zone Kaspiiskogo moria, Tehran, 14 August, 2002 [http://www.iran.ru/en/index.shtml?view=story&id=7039].
11 See: Voennye manevry Rossii uskoriat protsess militarizatsii Kaspiiskogo moria, Tehran, 10 July, 2002 [http://www.iran.ru/en/index.shtml?view=story&id=4934].
12 See: Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 24 April, 2002.
13 See: President prinial ministra oborony SshA, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 28 April, 2002.
14 G.W. Bush, State of the Union. Address, Washington (CNN), 29 January, 2002 [http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/01/029/bush.speech.txt/index.html].
15 All data presented in this and the next section are calculated by the author from official data published by the Statistical Office, in Ashghabad. See: Social-Economic Situation in Turkmenistan 1998-1999 and Jan-Oct 2000; Foreign Economic Activity of Turkmenistan 1994-1997, 1997-2000, 1998-2001 and data base of Turkmenmillihasabat.
16 See: US Imposes Sanctions against Taleban, 7 July, 1999 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/387860.stm].
17 See: UN Security Council Resolution 1267, 15 October 1999 [http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/other/5110pf.htm].
18 See: Soglashenie mezhdu Pravitelstvom Turkmenistana i Pravitelstvom Afganistana i Pravitelstvom Pakistana o proektakh gazoprovoda i nefteprovoda Turkmenistan-Afganistan-Pakistan, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 31 May, 2002.
19 Saparmurat Niyazov zaiavil, chto gazoprovod iz Turkmenistana v Pakistan cherez Afganistan dolzhen byt postroen k 2005 godu, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 31 May, 2002.
20 See: Afghanistan, Preliminary Heeds Assessment for Recovery and Reconstruction, World Bank, News Release, 2 January, 2002.
21 See: V. Socar, Gazoprovod mira mog by spasti subkontinent, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 12 June, 2002.
22 See: The Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project. Summary of Concerns [http://www.ciel.org/index.html].
23 See: Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 24 April, 2002.
24 Polozheno nachalo bolshim sversheniiam, Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 31 May, 2002.
25 See: Putin letit v Kazakhstan dlia vstrechi s prezidentami Tsentralnoaziatskikh stran, 6 July, 2002 [www.NTVRU.com].
26 See: Foreign Economic Activities of Turkmenistan 1996-1999, 1998-2001, Statisticheskiy sbornik Turkmenmillihasabat; Turkmenistan i Iran natseleny na rasshirenie dvukhstoronnego torgovo-ekonomicheskogo sotrudnichestva (Turkmendowlethabarlary-TDH), Neitralniy Turkmenistan, 21 April, 2002.

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