ASHGABAT -- Turkmen officials and members of ethnic Turkmen anti-Taliban brigades in Afghanistan are conferring for the first time in decades.
The "Arbeki" militias, based in the Faryab and Jawzjan provinces of Afghanistan, have been defending their villages from the Taliban and tying down Taliban units that otherwise could menace nearby Turkmenistan.
Until now, Turkmenistan had done little to acknowledge the Arbeki militias officially. However, news broke in June about Arbeki commanders coming to Ashgabat for consultations with the Turkmen government.
The commanders and Turkmen citizens were all surprised by the invitations. One Arbeki militia commander, Emir Allaberen Karyad, described his recent visit to Ashgabat in a June 22 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service.
Gratitude for outreach
Karyad, whose unit of up to 100 fighters battles the Taliban in Jawzjan Province along the Turkmen frontier, expressed gratitude to Ashgabat for arranging his visit. Turkmen doctors even "treated me for free in an Ashgabat clinic" during his trip, he said.
Karyad, who travelled with a group of other militia commanders and local police officials to Ashgabat, confirmed it was the first time in the Turkmen capital for any of them.
In 2015, Turkmenistan forged some contacts with Turkmen-Afghan clerics and tribal elders but not with anti-Taliban brigade commanders.
"Since officials in Turkmenistan directly contacted the field commanders [and Afghan police officials], something bigger [than ethnic solidarity] is behind all this," Ashgabat journalist Annaberdi Orazdurdyyev told Caravanserai, citing his own sources in the National Security Ministry (MNB).
"I believe Turkmenistan no longer counts on extremist militants to behave themselves," Orazdurdyyev said. "It is counting on ethnic Turkmens [in Afghanistan]."
The Afghan Taliban killed six Turkmen border guards in two ambushes in 2014.
Border violence flares up
The meetings between Turkmen officials and the militia commanders occurred immediately after media June 8 reported the deaths of 27 Turkmen conscripts along the Afghan border, Orazdurdyyev said, citing his MNB sources.
The Turkmen government never commented on the deaths.
"Something truly serious is happening on the border with Afghanistan," Orazdurdyyev said, citing Turkmenistan's previous reluctance to issue even tourist visas to Afghan citizens, let alone summon them to Ashgabat for talks on security.
The high death toll suffered by Turkmen forces in June most likely prompted Ashgabat to drop its previous reluctance to engage the ethnic Turkmen anti-Taliban forces, other individuals told Caravanserai in interviews.
"We're counting on our fellow Turkmens on the other side of the border," a Turkmen State Border Service (GPS) official who requested anonymity told Caravanserai.
In such situations, Turkmenistan will benefit from co-operating with ethnic Turkmen brigades in Afghanistan to secure the border, the GPS official added.
A modus vivendi fractures
In the mid-1990s, the Turkmen government appeased the Afghan Taliban by supplying them with oil, food and electricity, Rozygeldi of Ashgabat, a retired Turkmen border guard officer, told Caravanserai.
"But today it seems the Taliban want to take over all economic projects that are being built in the provinces that border Turkmenistan," he said. "They haven't been able to do that. So they began to make frequent incursions into Turkmen territory."
Turkmenistan's top diplomat pays a visit
Turkmenistan's stepped-up engagement with Afghanistan on border security included a June 26-28 visit to northern Afghan provinces by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov.
Meredov's delegation conferred with the governors of Faryab, Jawzjan and Balkh provinces on joint economic ventures like the under-construction Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline, according to Turkmen media.
However, border security surely was part of the talks, independent observers told Caravanserai.
"There is still-unconfirmed information that Turkmenistan promised to give ethnic Turkmen militias [in Afghanistan] all possible help if [they] promise to defend the Turkmen border," the anonymous GPS source told Caravanserai.
Until now, the Arbeki brigades have been depending on funding from local populations, without any help from Kabul or Ashgabat.
"Using the [local] people's money, we bought weapons and stood up to the Taliban and other unwelcome 'guests' for many years," Karyad said in his radio interview.
He expressed hope that "from now on Turkmenistan ... would begin offering real help to Turkmen-Afghans in their fight against the Taliban".
Neutrality might waver
Turkmen officials so far are insisting that their country's long-standing policy of neutrality, which has kept it out of all military alliances, bars it from supplying arms and munitions to the Turkmen-Afghan militias.
However, that policy could waver if the Taliban continue to threaten Turkmenistan or to ambush Turkmen troops, observers in Ashgabat say.