Afghanistan's role in Turkey's foreign policy

Turkish soldiers are seen during a welcoming ceremony held for Turkish armed forces personnel evacuated from the Afghan capital Kabul at 4th Corps Command in Mamak district of Ankara, Turkey on August 28, 2021. [Getty]
10 min read
20 September, 2021

For years, Turkey has been playing increasingly important roles in Afghanistan. Today, many officials in Ankara believe that Turkey holds unique advantages over other states seeking to fill a void in Afghanistan following two decades of US occupation.

The current situation in Kabul represents potential opportunities for Turkey. Ankara might be able to increase its geopolitical leverage in greater Central Asia and make itself more valuable to its NATO allies, ultimately improving its standing within the alliance.

But from Turkey’s perspective, the situation in Afghanistan is not all peaches and cream. Ankara has grave concerns about international terrorist organisations exploiting Afghanistan’s current conditions and refugee-related issues. Both can threaten the security of Turkey and, by extension, Europe.

History is important and frequently referenced by Turkish officials when discussing Ankara’s Afghanistan foreign policy. In the 1930s, the Turks sent military trainers to help the Afghan military.

In the years that followed, Turkey made important contributions to Afghanistan in terms of assistance in education and culture. Over the decades, the Uzbeks and Turkmen (as Turkish-speaking minorities in Afghanistan) have been important to relations between the two countries.

"Ankara might be able to increase its geopolitical leverage in greater Central Asia and make itself more valuable to its NATO allies"

Turkish-Afghan relations (2001-present)

Fast forward to the early 21st century. The 11 September 2001 attacks represented a major dilemma for Turkey. As a NATO member, Turkey closely allied itself with the United States despite domestic controversies of doing so at that time.

Eighty per cent of the Turkish population opposed their country’s military being used in Afghanistan. Turkey’s then-Islamist opposition (the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, did not ascend to power until the 2002 elections) objected to Ankara deploying Turkish troops to Afghanistan and permitting the Americans to use Turkey’s airspace and military bases for such operations.

Nonetheless, on 1 November 2001, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country that joined the US-led military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Ankara initially deployed 90 special forces to northern Afghanistan “primarily to help train anti-Taliban fighters and support humanitarian aid operations”.

Fearing that Muslims would believe that Turkey’s government had decided to support an American war against Islam, then-Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit declared that “those who portray this campaign as an action against Islam are contradicting the high values of Islam, which is a religion of peace”.

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Starting in 2002, Turkey’s military has been operating in Afghanistan under the auspices of the United Nations or NATO, or through bilateral accords between Ankara and Kabul. Within the framework of NATO’s two-decade mission, more than 500 Turkish troops were stationed in Afghanistan with non-combatant roles.

Turkish military personnel have been working on “consultancy efforts, reconstruction and maintenance” throughout NATO’s recently ditched Afghan campaign. Of most strategic significance, the Turks have been running the Hamid Karzai International Airport since 2015.

Ankara has also played some of its diplomatic hand to try to help the Taliban and the now-ousted Afghan government negotiate peace. The Turkish leadership often held or sponsored talks within formats that included Kabul, the Taliban, and Pakistan.

A Taliban flag is seen as Afghans continue to wait at Torkham border crossing to enter Pakistan on 24 August. [Getty]
A Taliban flag at Torkham border crossing to enter Pakistan on 24 August 2021. [Getty]

Taliban rule and the international airport

With the “Islamic Emirate” returning to power this year, Turkey has had to adjust its foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan. Ankara is playing everything cautiously for now, not jumping the gun to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan administration.

For Ankara, engaging the new Taliban regime is important. But Turkey’s leadership has not been happy with certain aspects of the new “Islamic Emirate”, such as its lack of inclusivity.

“Turkey has yet to decide how to engage the Taliban,” said Yusuf Erim, an Istanbul-based foreign policy analyst at TRT World, in an interview with The New Arab.

“Will Turkey work to have dialogue with the Taliban? Of course. But not with officials at high levels. Turkey will use lower-level channels such as envoys, deputy foreign ministers, or members of the security apparatus to continue dialogue. This is something that Turkey has done with countries that Ankara doesn’t have official relations with. This will be about understanding what the Taliban wants and where the Taliban stands. Turkey will also relay the conditions that it’ll require for official recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.”

Turkey operating the airport in Kabul and recognising the Taliban as legitimate do not come in a package deal. “Turkey can operate the airport without recognising the Taliban,” said Erim.

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“If Turkey operates the airport, this guarantees the international community, NGOs, and humanitarian aid groups confidence that the airport is secure and run professionally. This is something that is positive for the Taliban, so from Ankara’s perspective it should come with no recognition strings attached.”

The relationship between Turkey and Qatar is important to Ankara’s plans in Afghanistan. As Qatar’s top diplomat Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani recently told the Financial Times, Doha and Ankara are coordinating the reopening of the Kabul airport.

As the GCC state with the most diplomatic influence over the Taliban, Qatar will help Turkey (a close ally that greatly contributed to Doha’s ability to withstand pressure from the blockading states between 2017 and January of this year) when it comes to Ankara pursuing its interests in Afghanistan.

Great power geopolitics

Ankara’s role in Afghanistan could enhance Turkey’s leverage in the region with ramifications for its relations with global powers. “Turkey's strategy is to be a useful partner for NATO and other countries by alleviating humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, told The New Arab. “In turn by alleviating humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan, Turkey provides a useful service for the international community and in particular for NATO.”

As analysts such as Mustafa Gurbuz have noted, there is a Turkish perception of Afghanistan being “a potential bargaining chip” for Ankara in dealing with the Biden administration amid this messy public relations fiasco following the US pull-out, which has been very negative for the White House.

“The Turkish government believes that any critical role in helping the new regime in Kabul will be beneficial, regardless of whether that will be aligned with NATO’s interests. Erdogan reasons that if the Afghanistan file cannot be used to gain Washington’s favour, then such an asset may be offered as a bargaining chip to receive concessions on other contentious issues in US-Turkish relations.”

"With the 'Islamic Emirate' returning to power this year, Turkey has had to adjust its foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan"

The airport factor will matter to Sino-Turkish relations too. With China wanting to see Afghanistan become increasingly important to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Turkey’s influence in the war-torn country can add to Beijing’s perceptions of Ankara as a power to contend with in greater Central Asia - a region where Turkey wants more of a say.

“When we look at Afghanistan, it borders right between Pakistan and Iran,” observed Erim. “This very important geography means it’s going to be an important stop in [BRI]. Having a presence in Afghanistan will give Turkey a diplomatic tool for dealing with Beijing.”

Evolving Turkey-Taliban relations

Today, the new Afghan regime is courting Ankara. Some experts maintain that the Taliban basically needs Turkey at this juncture. Viewing Turkey (though not NATO as an alliance) as a “necessary partner” for the Taliban, the “Islamic Emirate” has softened its positions against Turkey and agreed to have talks with officials in Ankara about Turkey continuing a role in post-US Afghanistan.

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With the new government in Kabul focused on the challenges of ruling Afghanistan, as opposed to waging an insurgency, questions like the operability of the country’s only international airport are highly important to the Taliban.

Undoubtedly Turkey operating the airport is Ankara’s most vital source of leverage in Afghanistan. “The Taliban needs technocratic support from places like Turkey in order to make things like the Kabul airport run,” said Bohl.

Turkey’s religious and political identities matter to Ankara’s Afghanistan foreign policy. “Turkey’s Islamist identity is part of the reason that Turkey is reaching out to Afghanistan to play a constructive role in the post-US period in that country,” explained Bohl. “Turkey is trying to burnish its pan-Islamic identity by having a constructive role in a fellow Muslim country like Afghanistan.”

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)
A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on 18 August 2021. [Getty]

On 13 September, the Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen stated that “we consider Turkey as a brother Muslim country” and that the Taliban has “respect” for Ankara’s foreign policy. But in practice, not just rhetoric, it is unclear to what extent Turkey’s Islamic identity will impact the way in which the Taliban views Ankara’s role in Afghanistan.

Yet it seems that the Taliban’s main interests in Turkey pertain not to Islam, but rather to the ability of the Turks to bring something to the table in Afghanistan in terms of construction, investment, education, engineering, and so on. As Bohl put it, “Turkey's relationship with the Taliban is currently based on pragmatism rather than something ideological or even religious.”

Turkey's concerns about Afghanistan

For all the geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic opportunities that post-US Afghanistan might provide Ankara, Turkey fears how the war-ravaged country’s situation could evolve.

Ankara is concerned about the potential for violent extremist groups such as Islamic State Khorasan Province(IS-K) to exploit Afghanistan’s current conditions. It is important to bear in mind that terrorists from Central Asian, not Arab, countries carried out the deadliest IS attacks in Turkey, underscoring how the security of greater Central Asia is important to long-term peace in Turkey.

As Erim explained, Afghanistan is a “gateway” into Central Asia. “Any type of instability in Afghanistan also has the possibility of spilling beyond its borders and that’s something that Turkey doesn’t want to see right now.” Jihadist forces in Central Asia can infiltrate Turkey which is a national security concern.

"For all the geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic opportunities that post-US Afghanistan might provide Ankara, Turkey fears how the war-ravaged country's situation could evolve"

Yet the refugee issue is what probably most worries Turkey. “Turkey’s primary concern post-US Afghanistan is to prevent another flood of migrants from reaching Turkey and becoming a new burden on its already very wobbly economy,” according to Bohl. The leadership in Turkey, which currently hosts 3.7 million refugees, has declared that the country can’t accept a wave of Afghan refugees.

Officialdom in Ankara believes that the international community let Turkey down when it came to dealing with Syria’s refugees. Now the Turks don’t want to bear another heavy burden in terms of Afghan refugees against the backdrop of serious problems with their economy.

Already the country’s deportation centres have high levels of Afghan refugees, but, at least according to Turkish officials, they are not deporting them back to Iran and/or Afghanistan because of human rights factors. “Turkish officials also are waiting to see what happens next, saying it may be weeks or months before they can resume deportations,” reported Voice of America’s Heather Murdock late last month. “Turkey currently has 25 deportation centres, all filled to capacity with mostly Afghan refugees, and it plans to build eight more.”

Given anti-refugee sentiments and mounting anger in Turkey, the entry of many more Afghan refugees into the country could have major political and social ramifications.

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The Turkish role in Afghanistan

Looking ahead, Turkey has ambitions to expand its role in Afghanistan by engaging the different actors in the conflict-ridden country. Officials in Ankara are determined to portray Turkey in a positive light before the international community and show that it is acting cooperatively with key allies in the West, the Gulf, and across West Asia vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Most likely, Turkey will be keen to support regional and international efforts aimed at holding the Taliban accountable to the norms of international law and human rights, particularly with respect to women and various minority groups.

However, it is likely too early to determine whether Turkey has a real chance at influencing the Taliban. With so many variables being unknown at the present period, there is much uncertainty surrounding the future of Turkey-Taliban relations.

But Ankara may find itself in a strong position to join with Qatar in terms of functioning as a bridge between the “Islamic Emirate” and the wider international community.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero