Ashgabat has been offering for years to convene and host peace talks of all the warring parties in Afghanistan, with UN assistance. Turkmen diplomats have made this proposal at the UN General Assembly; they mention it in regional and international meetings -- and mainly they get ignored. Even so, the Afghan leadership makes perfunctory acknowledgements whenever they send delegations to Ashgabat, and even Chancellor Angela Merkel once acknowledged the idea when meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov as part of Germany's overall realpolitik strategy with Central Asia.
But most of the time, while praising Ashgabat's generosity in supplying humanitarian aid and subsidized electricity, as Ambassador Robert E. Patterson, Jr. did in his nomination hearing, the US ignores the actual peace talks proposal as do other powers -- Tashkent's also-ignored "6 + 2" or "6 + 3" proposal doesn't feature peace talks in Ashgabat, for example.
Whenever I've asked experts deeply engaged in Afghanistan, both from the government and private sector, how they view the Turkmen angle to peace in Afghanistan, they stare blankly -- they haven't heard of it.
When Turkmen officials enthusiastically describe their plan, they usually mention their already-existing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, their ready proximity to Afghanistan, the existence in Ashgabat of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, and something they are most proud of, their past record in helping to broker the end to Tajikistan's civil war.
That story seems to get bigger each time in Ashgabat's telling, although the role does seem to be acknowledged (it would be interesting to hear some experts on Tajikistan theorize about the role of Turkmenistan for Afghanistan, under Berdymukhamedov). The Wikipedia version of the history of the Tajik civil war (not necessarily definitive) mentions Turkmenistan only in passing, as among the countries whose foreign ministers met with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, more as interested parties concerned about borders and spillover than as brokers. The more salient fact seems to be the role of the UN and Russia's then-president Boris Yeltsin -- of course, Russian troops were deployed in Tajikistan, and to say the least of it, did not play a neutral role.
Obviously, the Russian and other regional factors that went into Tajikistan's peace would not pertain to an Afghan solution. But what could Ashgabat really offer?
A selling point for some people is that Turkmenistan is a self-proclaimed "neutral" state. Of course, it isn't always so neutral, depending on the pressing interests of the day. Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan is playing a key role by allowing NATO to fuel jets en route to Afghanistan, and has been paid handsomely in the past for this privilege.
Among Turkmenistan's five-point plan has been one that makes most Westerners find it hard to keep a straight face: training of Afghan officials in governance and the construction of a civil service. Turkmenistan is hardly a model there, and Berdymukhamedov's brutal method of constantly playing ministers off against each other and reprimanding and firing them routinely to keep them all fearful couldn't be effectively copied -- where it isn't already in effect in Karzai's government. As bad as things are in Afghanistan, they've had more experience in civil society and attempts at democratic elections than their authoritarian neighbor.
To be sure, one asset in Turkmenistan’s favor is indeed the UN Regional Centre in Ashgabat, which might play a useful role. This office is generally a black box in a white marble building, however; Ambassador Miroslav Jenča, the able Slovak diplomat leading it, never discusses what he is doing in Turkmenistan and only briefly emerged into the limelight last summer during the pogroms in Kyrgyzstan to help out with talks and technical assistance aid. A rare tidbit published on the UNRCCA website this week -- Ambassador Jenca visit Kabul May 21-23 to meet with UNAMA and "international partners" to discuss "further cooperation." The UNRCCA has high-level attention from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who nurtured its establishment, and reports directly and fairly regularly to the UN Security Council -- even overriding the occasional Russian objection to reports on Kyrgyzstan, for example.
Another asset is that the US now has an ambassador in Ashgabat. Still another -- which we wouldn't view as an asset but some might -- is the absolute blanket control over the media. The reason the public knows virtually nothing about the UN Centre is because there is no free press in Ashgabat, domestic or foreign -- nothing like, say, Asia Plus, Tajikistan's feisty independent news site, poking around. Such people are in jail in Turkmenistan -- along with the former Turkmen foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, who once led talks with the Taliban.
Turkmenistan has a vested economic interest in peace in Afghanistan -- it has launched the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which is stalled now on the issue of what India is willing to pay for Turkmen gas, but which will likely go forward and has Kabul's enthusiastic support. There's also a Turkmen-Afghan railroad project under way. Ashgabat seems motivated to stop drug flows and militants passing through its territory from Afghanistan, even as it is hoping to increase regional trade.
Since Berdymukhamedov has come to power in 2007 and paid more attention to foreign relations and education, he has grown a new crop of tightly-controlled diplomats with foreign language capacity in a new academy. Yet much of Ashgabat's "multi-vector" and "open-doors" foreign policy experience has involved selling its gas, and trying to diversify its customer list from a once-dominant Russia to China, Iran, and the EU. Whether a micro-managing dictator with a lot of gas to pump can help bring about peace in Afghanistan remains to be seen.