Turkey’s engagement in Afghanistan in post US withdrawal

 By Urooba Ahmad
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Introduction

Afghanistan, the soul of South Asia, has been a region of turmoil and devastation for decades. Designated a strategic location on earth, is troublesome as well as advantageous to it. Whatever the situation, it has always served as an apparatus of selfish interest for the west. Paradoxically, the reason Afghanistan has been at this critical juncture of unrest and civil war lies in its history of skilfully authorizing intense foreign interference for its benefit. Given its rich history and culture, the presence of multi-ethnic groups poses a greater threat to its security environment, indicating that it lacks the essence of nationalism in its society; what binds them is a shared religious belief. The recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to a power vacuum, has raised many questions among the international community, with the Taliban being at the forefront of achieving the succession of power from the USA-backed Afghan government, leaving world leaders perplexed in regards to recognition of the new regime. What is alarming to the world is that the neo Taliban of the 21st century has emerged as more powerful than the previous ones, have regained their significance in the region, and will regulate state affairs based on Islamist ideology. The article addresses the complexities and opportunities of the new Afghanistan under Taliban rule and Turkey’s keen interest in supporting the region’s security and stability as part of its humanitarian policy. Despite Taliban criticism, countries have shown their willingness to normalize their relationship with the latter. Furthermore, Turkey maintained a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of foreign powers from Kabul, but how the future of Turkey and Afghanistan’s relationship will turn out is uncertain.

Turkish involvement in Afghanistan since 2001

Turkey and Afghanistan share a historical and cultural bond. Its presence in Afghanistan has been evident through non-combat missions rather than the aggressive use of forces alongside NATO since 2003. Being the only Muslim member of NATO has been a valuable trump card in fulfilling its interest in the region. Turkey has so far; made immense efforts to train Afghan personnel and provide logistical support to them. It also attempted to involve the regional actors and demanded their contribution to Afghanistan’s crisis to further prevent the spillover of war into their respective borders in the future [1]. So far, Turkey has worked under the shadow of the USA, but the quick change of regime in Afghanistan has toppled its policies for future strategic plans of action as the Taliban restricted any foreign country’s presence in their lands. Though Turkey also had a peaceful relationship with the Taliban, now Turkey is trying to use the opportunity to maintain its military presence through negotiations, since it had the largest military contingent based in Afghanistan before the US withdrawal. Now the question arises whether the future of this brotherly relationship will persist in the coming years or whether it will create a space for greater cooperation with other Muslim countries too. If Afghanistan’s positioning themselves providing a gateway to the Central Asian region would be intensified for the Middle East countries as well. If it happens, then Turkey’s authorized dominance over the region will lose its importance.

Turkey’s efforts in Afghanistan up until now were applauded internationally, and they seemed to be looking forward to further supporting the Taliban in developing a peaceful environment because Afghanistan could not sustain this situation alone without international support. As part of their historic duty, Turkey appealed to many international actors for global efforts and to resume the diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan, and to permit the unfreezing of money in the Afghan central bank. It also asked the Taliban government to be inclusive in terms of its actions concerning the international community to achieve stability in the region [2].

Turkey’s emerging interest in Afghanistan post-US withdrawal

The current rise in tensions in and around Afghanistan ergo the Taliban’s inability to handle the state’s security situation. The region served as a haven for various terrorist groups, which worries the countries about their future outcome. The Taliban seems not to be flexible in its approach to compromising with its Islamic laws. The world is on the verge of a wait-and-see approach, examining the region in the context of formulating its policies for Afghanistan. At the NATO summit this June, when talks were held on the post-US withdrawal situation in Afghanistan, Turkey announced that it would take control of the security situation in Hamid Karzai Airport for the smooth withdrawal process, which it has guarded for six years, but the swift victory by the Taliban led to the early evacuation of the foreign diplomats and military troops. Holding the security situation at Kabul airport is a prudent idea since all the movements and diplomatic connections are carried out through them. A power vacuum has left the ground for many countries seeking opportunities in the absence of the USA in the region. Every state is anticipating ways to get involved directly or indirectly. But they are still in talks. So far, no country has officially recognized the Taliban’s rule.

Surrounded by an extraordinary competition of the great powers seeking to exert influence in the region, Turkey also looks for an excuse to delay their stay in Afghanistan and continue with their projects and contracts. However, many possibilities highlight the reason for Turkey’s interest in Afghanistan. The main motifs of its anxious interest lie in the current vulnerable position that Turkey has with the west. Turkey’s ties with the West have deteriorated due to several factors, including its recent billion-dollar purchase of Russian missile S400, Ankara’s military presence in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and occasional disputes with Greece in the Mediterranean Sea. If Turkey won’t resolve its disagreement with the USA, it would result in the imposition of sanctions, expediting the already struggling economy. For Turkey, Afghanistan could be a lever for recovering relationships with the western powers [3]. As the trusted partner in Afghanistan, Turkey could act as a mediator between the Taliban and the international community, representing the greater interest of the states. Other possible presumptions include whether Turkey would be driven by its national interest or whether it would be a representative to the west to monitor the changes closely. Without the financial, logistical, and diplomatic support of the West, Turkey would struggle to survive in a competitive environment. On the contrary, Turkey also discourages Islamic laws to rule the state in its home, will the recent diplomatic talks between them be initiated or it would be like a sky thinking?

Turkey’s recognition of the Taliban government: A risk factor or an opportunity for Turkey’s cooperation with the Taliban

According to the Atlantic Council, Turkey is at the intersection of some of the world’s most complex geopolitical and geo-economic issues. Through humanitarian diplomacy, they are exploring a broad foreign policy around the world. Turkey, having priorly established a trilateral agreement with Afghanistan and Pakistan, specified brotherly status for each other, and that would give Turkey a safe play in Afghanistan since the Taliban draw their origins from Pakistan. Turkey’s relationship with Pakistan is key to countering any possible threats in Afghanistan and safeguarding its interests. An International Relations professor, Mesut Makki Casin, in Turkey was quoted as saying, “Turkey and the Taliban would at some point agree, as there is no impossible in diplomacy” [4]. It believes that unless trusted international community partners are given control of airport security, foreign powers will be hesitant to resume operations and trade flows into the country. In the meantime, Turkey is working with Qatar and the USA on the terms under which the airport reopens to regular flights and provides the people with the necessities that they are lacking in the unstable political environment. Russia and China, showing a common front, were eager to establish their influence in Afghanistan through facilitating military and economic support that had started taking shape in the form of meetings, talks, and alliances recently held in Moscow. The presence of these two powers in Afghanistan could complicate Turkey’s engagement position in other conflict zones. Despite having good trade and defense cooperation with Russia and China, it won’t help justify Turkey’s position in Afghanistan [5]. Russia and China, contributing a greater part of the world’s GDP, have common eyes on Afghanistan’s minerals and oil resources once they recognize the Taliban rule would swamp the market of Afghanistan and would end up influencing the politics of the nation. States would be unable to recognize the Taliban government unless they met the demands of human rights. Therefore, it can be assumed that Turkey’s role in Afghanistan would be a risk factor at some point but could be a favourable step according to some states.

Conclusion

Afghanistan has yet to overcome the unexpected occurrence, but they have become accustomed to these revolutionary changes since the Soviet invasion. They have experienced multiple regimes throughout the expanse based on different ideologies, from harsh Islamic to liberal governing bodies, and are always in the cycle of peacebuilding and establishing a stable political environment. Following the breakdown with the new regime, they again retreated to the beginning of the process of development. Keeping aside all the complications, the isolation of Afghanistan is not the solution to the problem at this point. The world is currently facing an influx of Afghan refugees all around, so it is a mandatory requirement of countries to take initiatives for the betterment of Afghanistan’s national security and political situation as well as for the war-weary people in providing humanitarian aid through international organizations. The Taliban should focus on establishing a weak institutional base to prevent any causalities from the violent groups. Cooperation between Turkey and the US in the Afghanistan matter can bring relaxation to the increased tension between them and would be surveillant to Russia and China’s activeness. However, for Turkey, it is a cautious and costly affair at the same time to engage itself in Afghanistan with its domestic shortcomings.

Endnotes

[1] Kardaş, S. (2013, April) “Turkey’s Regional Approach in Afghanistan: A Civilian Power in Action”, SAM Centre for Strategic Research”. Available at: http://sam.gov.tr/pdf/sam-papers/SAM_Papers-No.-06.pdf

[2] K, Levent. (2021, August 29) “Turkey’s role in Afghanistan: a major risk”, Aljazeera Centre For Studies. Available at:  https://studies.aljazeera.net/en/analyses/turkeys-role-afghanistan-major-risk

[3] Mac Gillivray, I. (2021, 6 September) “Turbulence, the Taliban, and Turkey’s role in Afghanistan’s future”, Daily by LOWY Institute. Available at: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/turbulence-taliban-and-turkey-s-role-afghanistan-s-future

[4] Ataman, M. (2021,15th September) “Turkish foreign policy towards Afghanistan”, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic Research. Available at: https://www.setav.org/en/turkish-foreign-policy-towards-afghanistan/

[5] ibid.