Staunton, May 16 – Faced with growing threats from neighboring Afghanistan and religious militants within its own population and having an army that is rated the least combat-ready of any in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is desperately trying to correct the situation by working overtime to get more men in the military and to fight corruption there.
But because the situation has been neglected for so long and because the problems are so serious, some military observers say that even the radical steps Ashgabat has adopted in recent weeks may prove to be too little too late and that the country will have to seek outside assistance or be overrun by Islamist radicals.
While some of this coverage in Russian sources may be intended to force Turkmenistan to drop its constitutionally-mandated neutrality and seek aid from Russia or some other power, the situation is clearly so dire now that the future of Turkmenistan as an independent state is at risk.
And were it to be taken over by Islamists from Afghanistan, it would immediately become a place des armes for the spread of ISIS-type radicalism deeper into the four other countries of Central Asia, with unpredictable consequences for neighboring regions including China’s Xinjiang and Russia’s Middle Volga as well.
According to the Global Firepower rating, Turkmenistan’s military ranks 90th among the countries of the world, far behind the US, Russia and China which rank first, second and third, but also below Uzbekistan (54th), Kazakhstan (66th), Kyrgyzstan (78th), and Tajikistan (81st) (centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1431581400).
In a commentary on the Centrasia.ru portal yesterday, military observer Boris Grigoryev discusses why this is so and what Ashgabat, having ignored the military dimension of national security so long, is currently trying to do about it (centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1431700200).
Today, Turkmenistan’s armed forces “are simply a crowd of people who are poorly disciplined, poorly instructed and mired in corruption, who have out-of-date military equipment but who are dressed in uniforms,” Grigoryev says. Indeed, the prestige of the army has fallen so low that Turkmens are now willing to pay up to 10,000 US dollars to avoid service.
Despite widespread poverty, many Turkmens are able to come up with enough money to bribe their way out of service, and consequently, Ashgabat has been unable to staff its units adequately or build the military beyond a current level of 45,000 to 50,000 draftees and professionals.
For the first 20 years of independence, Grigoryev says, Ashgabat ignored this problem and its implications, but now, faced with threats from Afghanistan and within its own population, the authorities there are taking steps like eliminating military faculties in universities that many have used to avoid service, increasing the length of service for those with higher education, extending the draft age to 30, and increasing required service from two to three years.
In addition, the government has boosted pay to 860 US dollars a month for those willing to sign on for five years of service in border regions and given them apartments, and it has begun to mobilize retired officers and having them return to service in critical locations.
But these methods have not been enough, Grigoryev says, and now Ashgabat has begun examining all those who were excused from military service nominally on health grounds. According to some reports, he continues, approximately 80 percent of those deferred on that basis are in fact healthy but bribed their way out of service.
Ashgabat is also seeking to cut back on the high levels of corruption within the military, including illegal arrangements in which officers purchase billets as far away from the Afghan border as they can for as much as 7,000 US dollars or better positions nearer the border for 2,000 US dollars.
And the Turkmenistan government is also seeking to combat the spread of radical Islamist ideas within the ranks of its army. Not long ago, Grigoryev reports, officials arrested four draftees who were guarding a key hydro-electric station for their religious activities and contacts with Islamists in Turkey.