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Dec 12, 2000 | 06:00 GMT

Turkmenistan Takes a Chance on the Taliban

Turkmenistan agreed Nov. 27 to supply the Taliban, the Islamic movement controlling most of Afghanistan, with electricity and gas.

Turkmenistan is only the fourth country worldwide to recognize the Taliban and the second country in the region to do so after Pakistan. Other nations, most notably Russia, still support Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Massood and ousted Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Turkmenistan's government hopes to use Afghanistan as an export route for its large deposits of natural gas. Until recently, Russia was the only viable route for this export, but Ashgabat wants economic independence from Moscow. If Turkmenistan opens friendly relations with the Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of Afghanistan, then it has the first shot at exporting gas south through Afghanistan and Pakistan when peace is declared.

Turkmenistan took a risk in openly supporting the Taliban. Iran currently is the only feasible option for Turkmenistan's gas exports besides Russia, but Tehran has concerns over border security and economics. As long as Iran and other nations continued to shun the Taliban - and prolong the war in Afghanistan -Turkmenistan would not be able to use Afghanistan as an export route. Turkmenistan would be cut off from Russia and Iran and would have no way to export its gas.

Furthermore, Russia has worked to prolong the war in Afghanistan, threatening the deal Turkmenistan made with the Taliban. As long as Russia opposes the Taliban and Iran's security is threatened, Russia remains the only secure route for energy exports from the Caspian nations. If countries begin to support the Taliban move toward a peace process, however, then Iran would become a serious threat to Russian hegemony in the Caspian.

Iran, though, has signed on with Turkmenistan. On Nov. 28, Agence France-Presse reported Turkmenistan and Iran supported each other in the debate with Russia over the exploitation of the Caspian Sea. Then the BBC reported Dec. 9 Turkmenistan and Iran had opened a new gas pipeline between the two countries and were signing new export and transport deals. Iran, through this economic deal, also indicates it may be ready to work with the Taliban and support an Afghan peace process.

Turkmenistan's support of the Taliban indicates support is growing for a peace settlement in Afghanistan. More importantly, Turkmenistan has gained an important ally in Iran. Ashgabat is able to avoid isolation, and the alliance may provide an incentive for other nations to pledge their support to the Turkmen-Iranian alliance. This economic pact also suggests Iran is ready to start dealing with the Taliban.

Iran's tacit support of the Taliban may provide the incentive for other Central Asian nations to break from the Russian position and sign on with Iran and Turkmenistan. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for example, also depend on energy transport routes through Russia. The Turkmenistan-Iran route provides an enticing alternative export corridor that would help wrench these nations from Russian regional hegemony. Furthermore, the countries will be poised to take advantage of an Afghan transport corridor once peace is declared.
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