Afghanistan in the Prism of Turkish Foreign Policy: What is behind Turkey’s Interest in Afghanistan?

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Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan has become a main subject of focus in international political circles and media outlets. Following the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, some countries have been interested to keep their relations with the Taliban regime. In the threshold of NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Turkey was one of the main actors that expected to undertake the security of Kabul International Airport (KIA), the offer which was rejected by the Taliban. However, despite their initial refusal, the Afghan Taliban granted permission to Turkey and Qatar for providing logistic and technical support for the 24-hour operation of KIA.

Turkey is the only NATO member that kept its direct engagement with the Taliban government after the end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. On 14th October 2021, Ankara hosted a Taliban high-level delegation led by Amir Khan Muttaqi, the acting foreign minister of Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Since then, the relations between Taliban and Turkey began to normalize resulting in resumption of direct flights from Afghanistan to Turkey, agreement on reopening the Afghan-Turk Maarif Schools for girls and providing humanitarian relief to Afghanistan. These developments between Taliban and Turkey have created many questions about Ankara’s motivations. Despite withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan, intensification of political and economic crisis and suspension of most diplomatic missions in the country, what reasons have motivated Ankara to insist on its presence in Afghanistan? There are four main reasons that can help us in the issue analysis.

The primary expectation of Turkey from its presence in Afghanistan is to grab effective tools of power and negotiation in order for it to enhance its regional and international influence. More specifically, Turkey wants to repair its frayed relations with the US and EU. In recent years, the relations between Turkey, the US and EU have become increasingly strained. After the failed military coup of 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s foreign policy tended towards intervention in the region. Washington was suspected of masterminding the coup by using the US-based Fathullah Gulen Network. On the other hand, the US support of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – a separatist militia organization along the Turkish-Syrian border – has further intensified tension between Turkey and the US. These factors made Ankara to adopt a more independent and pragmatic foreign policy, rather than traditional dependence on the western allies.

For instance, in 2019, Turkey further irritated the US by purchasing S-400 anti-missile defense system from Russia, violating all security protocols of NATO. In retaliation, Washington imposed exorbitant sanctions on Turkey and asked it for revocation of the deal.  As a result of this contract, Turkey as a strategic partner of the US, not only engaged with the latter’s traditional rival (Russia), but with this deal Moscow was provided with the opportunity to access the defense system of a key NATO member (Turkey) as well. Meanwhile, Turkish defense industry’s rapid advancement increased the speculation about Ankara’s future regional and international policies and its commitment to NATO.

However, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s administration, Turkey intensively felt the need to repair its relations with the United States. Therefore, without giving up its foreign policy approach, it wanted to highlight its role as an ally of the US. Apparently, Ankara expects that management of Kabul International Airport can increase its bargaining power with the US and other western allies.

Turkey expects that it could repair its tense relations with the west by managing the resumption of Afghanistan’s only gateway to the world (KIA) through which the US and EU also would be able to oversee the Afghan crisis. The US officials also think that in the Taliban administrated Afghanistan where the activities of western countries have been restricted, presence of Turkey would be the best option for keeping western embassies and organizations functional. On the other hand, due to Islamic tendencies of the Turkey’s ruling party, presence of Ankara in Kabul would have less sensitivity to the Taliban. Therefore, while the US foreign and security policies are focusing on the intensive challenges of Indo-Pacific region, Turkey expects that its presence in Afghanistan, as a strong regional alternative could highlight its role in addressing the Afghan crisis.

Given these facts, as compared to other NATO members, Turkey is ripe for staying in Afghanistan. Despite involvement of Turkish troops in the last 20 years of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, as the only Muslim soldiers of NATO, they had not participated in the operations against the Taliban: Ankara as the second power in NATO did not launch any offensive on the Taliban. It was mostly involved in the non-military and civilian missions. Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) has cooperated in over 1000 projects civilian projects which addressed educational, healthcare, agriculture and infrastructure sectors.

Despite the recent differences of opinion between Taliban and Turkey, after the former considered Turkish presence as “continuation of foreign invasion”, there are still opportunities of reapproachment between the two parties. Erdoğan stated that he would be ready to meet and welcome Taliban leaders in Ankara. This signal was implicitly approved by the Taliban after they stated their readiness to give technical and logistical responsibility of Kabul International Airport to Turkey and Qatar, reserving the condition that the security will remain in the hand of Taliban forces.

Meanwhile, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesperson in Qatar called Turkey as a major partner in the reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan and reiterated that their regime would accept Turkish support in healthcare, education and construction of infrastructure sectors in Afghanistan. There is a reciprocal relation between Taliban and Turkey. Taliban need Turkey as much as Turkey needs them. This time, unlike their first term, Taliban besides revising their domestic dogmatic policies want to be patronized by the countries with more bargaining power in the international community.

It appears that Turkey’s calculation is not limited to Afghanistan. In the recent years, Ankara has come to the conclusion that collaboration between military institutions and foreign policy is inevitable. As a result Turkey could use a non-military alternative leverage in the issues concerning its national and regional security.

Geographically, Afghanistan maintains a significant strategic location linking the Middle East, Central Asia and Indian sub-continent, due to which it has become an arena of rivalry among different powers. Turkey realizing this strategic significance wants to extend its active presence in Afghanistan. Hulusi Akar, Turkish Defense Minister in its statement called Afghanistan as “Heart of Asia” and indicated that Turkey’s presence in this country would facilitate Ankara’s prospects of political influence as well as enhance investment opportunities in the neighboring countries. Turkey is most specifically interested in Lapis-Lazuli transit route project that links Afghanistan with Turkey through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia bypassing China, Russia and Iran. This project as a key energy corridor could enhance Turkey’s geopolitical significance in the region.

Another important objective of Turkey is to position itself as a political center of the Muslim World and to promote its political and cultural influence in all Turkish ethnicities across the world. Hence, Turkish presence in Central Asia ambit focuses on Ankara’s desire to become the chieftain of Turkish Central Asian tribes. By supporting the cause of Uyghur Turks in China, Turkey aims to achieve multiple strategic objectives. This can not only harbor strong ties with the Taliban government but also leverage Ankara to strengthen its relations with the US by proving as a reliable partner against China.

While attempting to exploit the current opportunities in Afghanistan, Turkey is also facing challenges. Regardless of not having common border with Afghanistan, Turkey is gravely suffering from illegal migration of Afghans passing through Iran. Europe is the ultimate destination of these migrants but due to strict controlling measures in the European borders, most of these migrants remain stuck in Turkey.

The new wave of Afghan migrants is used as a leverage in negotiations between Turkey and Europe. Erdoğan, while asking Europe to cooperate with Turkey in migration issue, reiterated that Turkey would not become a guest house of migrants. According to Anadolu Agency, Turkey has rejected Washington’s request of accepting and processing SIV applications in Turkey as third-country. In order to control the new wave of migration, Turkey is constructing hundreds kilometer security walls along Iran and Iraq border which is equipped with barbed wire, cameras and surveillance towers.

Turkey’s effort to control new wave of migrants is not limited to the border measures. It thinks that fighting this crisis outside would not be sufficient but curbing the crisis inside Afghanistan could have much better results. After Syrians, Afghans constitute the second largest migrant population in Turkey and due to possible economic effects, the new migration wave has intensified public rage as well. Turkey’s opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) under the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is increasingly exploiting migration issue against the ruling party. This party is attempting to reduce the popularity of AKP by propagating and spreading racist slogans against migrants. In the last 20 years, right-wing tendencies of the ruling party in Turkey have been the cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy. Staying away from military engagement against Taliban stems from religious outlook of AKP. Turkey has never wanted to involve in the Afghan War.

Therefore, given the statements of Taliban and Turkey it appears that efforts are ongoing for re-approachment. Ankara wants to utilize its past good relations with the Taliban for strengthening its bargaining power with the US and EU. Ensuring Turkey’s abstract presence in Central Asia and western China, enhancing regional and international influence and containing the new wave of Afghan migration are the primary factors that drive Ankara to Kabul. Prediction of details, limits and developments of relations between both parties depends on the mutual seriousness and capabilities to manage differences. It becomes more difficult when rivalry among regional and international actors is inevitable in the post NATO withdrawal Afghanistan.

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