The Leverages and Pitfalls of Turkey’s Taliban Overtures

EPC | 02 Sep 2021

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.

Why Afghanistan?

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.

  1. President Erdogan and his nationalist allies see Afghanistan as a critical element in a broader strategy to expand Turkish influence in Central Asia. Moreover, Turkish security and political assessments believe that some of Afghanistan’s neighbors will inevitably accept the Taliban’s control over the entire Afghan soil and recognize its government, either directly or as a fait accompli. These neighbors, especially China and Russia, will improve relations with the Taliban to ensure that Afghanistan is stable and does not turn into a hotbed for terrorist groups that threaten neighboring countries. Turkish military and political officials support the idea that their country must seek to build strong and strategic ties with the Taliban for Turkey to have a foothold in the new Afghanistan. The foothold would also ensure Turkish companies winning stakes in the country’s reconstruction projects.
  2. There is no doubt that President Erdogan wants to improve his country’s relations with the United States through the Afghan gate. Ankara believes that any new role it has in Afghanistan will breathe a new life into Turkish-American relations. The United States may also see Turkey as a good “proxy” in Afghanistan. Turkey’s military role in Afghanistan has long contributed to improving Turkish-US relations. After Turkey decided to participate in the ISAF forces in Afghanistan in 2001, Washington facilitated Ankara’s access to the largest financial support from the International Monetary Fund to tackle its economic crisis at the time. It is also noted that the flow of foreign funds to Turkey, through deals with countries allied to the United States, has increased since the agreement between Erdogan and Biden in June. Both sides agreed that Turkey would take over the security of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
  3. The demographics of Afghanistan include a Turkish minority, the Uzbeks, who make up about 17 percent of the population, concentrated in the north of the country. This Uzbek minority, with whom Turkey has ethnic ties, encourages Erdogan to pursue a more significant role in Afghanistan. Also, President Erdogan, through his ideologized foreign policy, is still seeking “Islamic alliances” with several Sunni-majority countries to expand Turkey’s reach in the region. He actively seeks to include Afghanistan in an alliance that brings together Turkey, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan, to form a striking force in Central Asia with political, security, military, and economic influence that balances any Russian influence.
  4. President Erdogan seems convinced that it is possible to build good relations with the Taliban, taking advantage of his Islamist policies and relations with Qatar, a Turkish ally. Commenting in August on the negotiations between Ankara and the Taliban, Erdogan said: “The Taliban is negotiating with Washington. Given that the Taliban and the Turkish people share one Islamic culture, the Taliban’s negotiation with Turkey will be easier and better.” He emphasized his conviction to establish strong relations with the group. Erdogan also indicated, in another statement, that he might receive the Taliban leader in Turkey soon. On the other hand, after the group took control of Kabul, Taliban spokespersons continued to stress the importance of having good relations with Turkey. However, they limit this to cooperation in reconstruction and the economy and link it to the complete withdrawal of the Turkish military forces. Therefore, Erdogan seeks to present himself as a partner and “Islamic” ally of the Taliban, who can be relied on more than China or Russia if the Taliban wants to improve its relations with the West.
  5. Thousands of Afghan refugees arrive daily in Turkey. Most of them are Afghan security and army personnel who fled after the Taliban fighters advanced in several Afghan provinces. The Turkish government says it “will not accept becoming a country of Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers” and has tightened its border with Iran to prevent the influx. Erdogan is expected to use the Afghan refugee card to extract more money from the European Union. The Afghan refugee issue will also provide him with leverage when needed in his debate with the European Union on political issues. 

Leverages

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:

  1. Turkey has good and strong relations with the Afghan people in general. Despite participating in ISAF forces, Turkey has been careful not to engage its forces in any combat operations against the Taliban and has focused its efforts on reconstruction and economic development, mainly to build hospitals, schools, mosques, and provide relief aid. Turkey tried from the beginning to play a neutral role in Afghanistan and invest in the cultural and social commonalities between it and the Afghan people to gain their trust and confidence. 
  2. Turkey has strengthened its relations with the Uzbek minority in Afghanistan, especially with General Rashid Dostum, who visits Turkey regularly, and his forces receive continuous military support and training in Ankara.
  3. In addition to this positive role in Afghanistan, Ankara is betting on Pakistan’s strong relations with the Taliban. Turkey currently enjoys strong relations with Islamabad, which supports a decisive role for Turkey in Pakistan’s eastern neighbor. The Turkish-Pakistani relations have recently deepened to include intelligence and military cooperation and arms manufacturing, bringing the ties between the two countries to the point of a strategic alliance.

Challenges

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:

  1. The Taliban has so far rejected Turkey’s invitations to send an official delegation to Ankara. Although the group’s delegations visited Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing, the Taliban insists on Turkey pulling its soldiers out of Afghanistan before any direct contact with the Turkish government. At present, Qatar is leading negotiations with the Taliban on behalf of Turkey. Ankara is betting on the Taliban’s need to keep the Hamid Karzai International Airport open for Afghanistan to remain connected to the outside world. This approach connects with the group’s fear of being subjected to an international siege after taking control of the government. Turkey also believes that the presence of Turkish troops or technicians and engineers will keep the Taliban’s line of communication with the West open and help the group ensure the continued flow of international aid through the airport. However, some Taliban figures still view Turkey with suspicion as a member of NATO. The Taliban also believes that it will obtain international recognition, at least from Russia and China, after its control of Afghanistan and that it will not be in urgent need of “this Turkish role at the airport.” This is in addition to the Taliban’s success in managing and operating the Kandahar Airport after taking control of it without any foreign support. Therefore, in its negotiations with the Taliban, Ankara offers to “help” in operating and securing the airport, not controlling it completely, and framing this with a fixed-term agreement. Ankara realizes that it has to convince the Taliban to accept this role and that it cannot impose itself by force on the Taliban, so the negotiations are also heading toward giving the Taliban economic and financial “stimulus.” Notably, President Erdogan’s government will not hesitate to break the US sanctions against the Taliban (if such sanctions are imposed), just as it cooperated with Iran in violating the US sanctions imposed on the latter.
  2. One of Turkey’s difficulties in Afghanistan is competition from other countries, led by China and Russia. Moscow kept its embassy in Kabul after the Taliban took control of the capital. China is gearing up to invest in Afghanistan, include it in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, and exploit its mineral wealth, especially copper and lithium. This is in addition to the Indo-Pakistani rivalry in Afghanistan, which may negatively reflect on the Turkish role. Whatever the case, Ankara is still trying to reassure these countries that the Turkish presence on the ground will stabilize Afghanistan, which means supporting Beijing’s potential investments, and the security stability that Moscow seeks in Afghanistan. Accordingly, Turkey is trying to project itself as a supporter of Afghanistan’s stability and not a guardian or a substitute for the United States or NATO.
  3. Turkey’s previous experiences of helping Islamist movements that take over power and bring them closer to the West have not been encouraging so far. In 2001, Turkey offered Washington help the Afghans establish a new government, arguing that Turkey is better able to understand the nature of the Afghan people because of religious and cultural commonalities. Washington rejected the move at the time. In 2006, Turkey offered to help Hamas transform from an armed Islamist movement into a political party after its victory in the Palestinian elections and present it to Washington and the West in a new look. However, Ankara’s efforts failed due to Hamas’ adherence to its ideology and strong relations with Iran and Syria. Turkey also reproduced the experience again during the so-called Arab Spring when it tried to get close to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Libya, trying to play the “Big Brother.” However, Turkey’s efforts to build a “moderate Islam combining political Islam with democracy” failed. Instead, they turned out to be purely nationalist hegemony projects through which Turkey seeks to extend its influence over geographical areas in the region.  

Prospects

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.

Conclusions

  • Turkey counted on retaining responsibility for the security and management of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport but began withdrawing its forces from Kabul on August 26 as the Taliban insisted that Turkish military forces must leave. Turkey is now focusing on providing technical and economic support as a gateway to establishing strong relations with the Taliban and strengthening the Turkish presence in the new Afghanistan, thus expanding Turkish influence in Central Asia.
  • There are several leverages for any Turkish role in the new Afghanistan. The most important is Turkey’s positive perception among the Afghan people throughout the Turkish forces’ mission in Afghanistan. The Turkish forces did not engage in any battles against the Taliban, not to mention that it enjoys strong relations with Pakistan, which also has close relations with the Taliban.
  • However, Turkish efforts in Afghanistan face several difficulties, the most important being competition from other regional countries. Some Taliban figures view Turkey with suspicion as a member of NATO and a United States ally.
  • Turkey is likely to persuade the Taliban to agree to Ankara providing training services and technical assistance to manage the Hamid Karzai International Airport and many state agencies and projects. What makes this prediction likely is that Erdogan remains insistent on offering many temptations to the Taliban and that the Taliban will need a Turkish role that will enable them to reach an understanding with the West. This will give Turkey greater political, social, and economic weight in Afghanistan. Turkey can achieve this by developing an understanding with Pakistan, China, and Iran, and the United States support.

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