Turkey supported the United States, its NATO ally, in the war it launched in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in November 2001. After the curtain came down on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in 2014, Turkey again deployed non-combat peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan. Since then, Turkey maintained a non-combat force of 648 soldiers to protect and manage the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
In a meeting between presidents Erdogan and Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels in June, the two governments agreed to hand over the task of protecting and managing the airport to Turkish forces after the US withdrawal on August 31. However, the Taliban’s early and sudden control of Kabul, on August 14, and its insistence on the departure of all foreign forces by the end of August, shattered the Turkish-American arrangement. As a result, Ankara turned to negotiate with the Taliban through Qatar to keep its forces at the airport for protecting and managing it. However, the Taliban rejected this Turkish request and asked it to completely remove its forces from Afghanistan and its airport before discussing any cooperation.
Turkey began withdrawing its forces from the airport on August 26. President Erdogan said that he “wanted to trust the Taliban’s statements, with caution.” Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin said that Turkey would soon return to Afghanistan by providing technical and economic support.
Turkey’s desire to maintain a presence in Afghanistan has never been a secret. They wanted boots on the ground, which Ankara prefers but is no longer an option. They have also sought to extend “a technical and economic support window,” as Kalin, the Turkish president’s adviser puts it. These endeavors are meant to find a gateway through which Turkey can build strong relations with the Taliban and the new Afghanistan. The larger objective is to establish a foothold in Central Asia and a geographical spot that will focus on many regional powers, namely China, Russia, and India. Whichever way one looks at it, Turkey’s quest to consolidate its presence in a Taliban-led Afghanistan will not be easy.
Several motives drive President Erdogan and his government’s frantic quest to ensure that Turkey has a robust and active presence in Afghanistan. There are reasons related to the Turkish foreign policy, and those driven by Erdogan’s nationalist Islamism tendency, in addition to economic motives.
Many leverages are supporting Turkey in its quest to consolidate its presence in a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Among the most important of these are the following:
In theory, it seems nothing can prevent Ankara from achieving its goal of establishing robust and strategic relations with the Taliban. However, in practice, Turkey faces many challenges, the most important of which are:
There are two main possibilities for any future Turkish role in Afghanistan:
The first possibility assumes that Turkey will succeed in obtaining approval for providing training services and technical assistance to manage and protect Kabul airport and manage many state agencies and projects. This would enable Turkey to establish good relations with Afghanistan’s new rulers and give Turkey greater political, social, and economic weight in Afghanistan vis-à-vis other countries competing for influence there. This will not bother China, which is primarily interested in a stable Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative project. Having partners who share the cost of supporting stability in Afghanistan is vital to China and its economic projects.
Indeed, Ankara expects Turkish-Chinese-Afghan-Pakistani-Iranian economic understandings on infrastructure projects linking China to Pakistan and Turkey via Iran. However, Tehran will still view this Turkish role with suspicion because it will see Turkey as an arm of NATO on its eastern border with Afghanistan. Given that Turkey and Iran agree that their regional rivalry should remain without direct confrontations, Tehran and Ankara can overcome any security “doubts” that may arise due to the Turkish role in Afghanistan, especially with Ankara’s categorical rejection of the international and US sanctions policy against Iran. Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan will also increase Turkish pressure on Russia because Ankara is betting on the possibility of enjoying a strengthened partnership with the Taliban. This seems to be the most likely possibility.
The second possibility suggests that Turkey will fail in its negotiations with the Taliban. The latter will reject any Turkish presence on Afghan soil, whether military or technical and economic support. This would undoubtedly deal a severe blow to President Erdogan’s efforts to woo the Biden Administration and would cost Ankara a large part of its hopes for influence in Central Asia or to win financial projects in Afghanistan. However, this scenario remains unlikely because Erdogan continues to insist on offering many temptations to the Taliban. The G7’s threat to the Taliban and its statement that it will monitor the group’s respect for human rights and the status of women makes the Taliban more in need of a Turkish role that will enable them to reach an understanding with the West.
EPC | 13 Sep 2021
EPC | 08 Sep 2021
EPC | 07 Sep 2021