Turkey in Afghanistan: Mission impossible?

An Afghan National Army soldier stands beside a Turkish flag as he watches a handover ceremony of Turkish donated howitzer artillery guns during a ceremony in Kabul, 9 May 2007. [Getty]
8 min read
26 July, 2021
Analysis: Turkey is trying to cement a role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, but military and diplomatic challenges could pose a problem.

On the 15th of July, the Taliban’s spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that meetings had taken place between the Afghan group and Turkish officials, with both agreeing to hold joint talks.

"We want to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” he said. “Erdogan is a very important state leader both for us and for the Islamic world. We want to share the facts of Afghanistan with him."

Days later, the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada stressed that he “strenuously favours” a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Building on these statements, Turkey’s President Erdogan said on 19 July that the Taliban should stop its expansion across Afghanistan and that Ankara seeks negotiations with the group.

"Erdogan has proposed that Turkey could operate and secure Kabul's international airport after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan at the end of August"

A week earlier, the Taliban had said that “neither the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan nor the Afghan people are against Turkey or the Turkish people…We want Turkey as Turkey. We do not want Turkey as a part of NATO”.

When asked about the comments, Erdogan stressed that they do not indicate a rejection of Turkey’s role in the country.

The Turkish proposal

Last month, Erdogan proposed that Turkey could operate and secure Kabul’s international airport after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan at the end of August.

Ankara, however, set three conditions for successfully undertaking this mission, including securing political, financial, and logistical support from the US and other allies. The Turkish president also added one more request, which was to incorporate Pakistan and Hungary into the operation.

Although landlocked, Afghanistan is located in Central Asia, a strategically important region that has long witnessed a grand power play between neighbouring and international powers, including the US, Russia, and China, on one hand, Turkey and Iran on another, and to some extent Pakistan and India.

US - Afghanistan - Taliban - GETTY
Security personnel walk past a wall mural with images of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Kabul on 31 July, 2020. [Getty]

Additionally, Afghanistan might be sitting on three trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources, including copper, iron ore, lithium, gold, silver, aluminium, zinc, and mercury, among others.

The pull-out of US and foreign troops from the country will create a vacuum and reignite regional and international competition. The US in particular will suffer a disadvantage, as it is increasingly positioned to counter the rise of China and a much more problematic Russia.

For Turkey, which has successfully expanded its sphere of influence into the Caucasus and Central Asia in the last few years, securing a role in Afghanistan in the post-US era will be an opportunity not only to be a step ahead of its regional rivals, such as Iran, but also to guarantee a sustainable influence in the region.

Creating a foothold in Afghanistan will boost the value of Turkey in NATO as an effective and capable member that can execute critical missions that no other member can. Moreover, it will also prompt Ankara’s Western allies to stay in the game and remain close to a complex geopolitical theatre.

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In this sense, securing Kabul’s airport is a crucial mission as it will be a critical facility in the post-US era in Afghanistan.

Securing the airport and the roads leading to it will encourage diplomatic missions to stay in the country. Furthermore, it will allow non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to continue working and offering their services to Afghans and maintain the flow of aid to the country.

Yet, for the Turkish formula to work, Ankara must undergo three types of negotiations. The first would require Turkey to obtain guarantees and support from its Western allies. Indeed, Erdogan already discussed the proposal with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels in June. 

While some progress has been achieved on this front, ongoing talks are continuing in a constructive manner, according to Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar. Secondly, there is a need for discussions with Pakistan and Hungary parallel to negotiations with the Afghans. This would include the Afghan government as well as the Taliban.

"For Turkey, securing a role in Afghanistan in the post-US era will be an opportunity not only to be a step ahead of its regional rivals, such as Iran, but also to guarantee a sustainable influence in the region"

Why Pakistan and Hungary?

Historically, Turkey and Pakistan have enjoyed strong ties, yet their economic and defence relations remain below expectations. Recently, however, both have been working at a rapid pace to enhance and strengthen their ties in these fields.

Moreover, Ankara has incorporated Pakistan into several regional initiatives including the latest trilateral Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan mechanism for cooperation and coordination. Given Pakistan’s geographic proximity to Afghanistan, the Pashtun factor, and old ties with the Taliban, Islamabad can help facilitate talks between Ankara and the group.

An endorsement from Pakistan and the Taliban for the Turkish proposal would minimise any perceived risks against Turkish troops. But of course, this is something that would depend on several variables, including what Pakistan would gain in return.

As for Hungary, the country is not a political, economic, or military power, making it comparatively irrelevant to Afghanistan. Therefore, its inclusion in the Turkish proposal came as somewhat of a surprise to most observers.

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Securing Kabul's airport is a crucial mission as it will be a critical facility in the post-US era in Afghanistan. [Getty]

Some reports claim that Budapest’s former role in ensuring the security of Kabul’s airport and its familiarity with the topography of the region surrounding the airport are the primary reasons for Ankara to ask for its participation.

However, this is hardly convincing given that several countries participated in such a mission in the last few years, not to mention that Hungary had only nine soldiers in Afghanistan as of late.

What distinguishes Hungary in this regard is its historic and cultural relations with Turkey. Budapest hosts the Gul Baba tomb from the Ottoman period, for example, and is both an EU country and a NATO member. Its relatively small size and role is an advantage for Ankara because it does not provoke/or stir the sensitivity of the big players.

Moreover, since establishing the joint Supreme Strategic Council between the two countries in 2013, bilateral relations are advancing fast. Hungary was one of the few countries that explicitly supported the Turkish call for a safe zone in northern Syria.

It has continuously supported Ankara in the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO and has always called for cooperation with Ankara in Syria and Libya. Recently, it was accepted as an observer member in the Turkic Council (the Council of Turkic Speaking States).

"Creating a foothold in Afghanistan will boost the value of Turkey in NATO as an effective and capable member that can execute critical missions that no other member can"

Four main challenges

For Turkey to successfully undertake this mission in Afghanistan it must overcome four legal, political, diplomatic, and logistical obstacles. Firstly, until now, Turkish forces in Afghanistan have operated under international, regional, and local legal frameworks, including UN Security Council resolutions, NATO resolutions, and legislation from the Turkish parliament.

At the end of 2020, the Turkish parliament extended the mission of Turkish troops in Afghanistan for another 18 months starting from January 2021. The pullout of US and foreign forces at the end of next month will create new realities that will probably make such mandates invalid.

Therefore, it is essential for Turkish troops to work in Afghanistan under a new mandate or legal umbrella after the US and NATO withdrawal.

A second obstacle will be convincing the Taliban of the benefits of the Turkish proposal. Since Turkish troops in Afghanistan have never participated in combat missions against the Taliban or the Afghan people, they enjoy a positive image, and were never targeted.

Yet, as foreign forces gear up to leave, their mission will become questionable. The Taliban do not want Turkish troops under the NATO banner, but Ankara believes international recognition will be important for the Taliban in the near future.

However, whether or not the two parties will be able to figure out a new equation that enables Turkish troops to remain will be tied to negotiations between Turkey and the Taliban, parallel to intra-Afghan dialogue on the one hand, and Turkey-Afghan government talks on the other.

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Thirdly, Pakistan’s stance will be important. Although some Pakistani officials have welcomed the Turkish proposal, Islamabad’s official stance is not clear yet. If the Taliban continues to object to the Turkish proposal, it would be impossible to convince it otherwise, especially if Pakistan is not involved.

Accordingly, Pakistani participation in this matter is quite important, but Islamabad might have its own calculations.

While some pundits believe that Pakistan no longer wants to be associated with the idea that it has sway over the Taliban, others argue that Pakistan would be happy to see a neutral or pro-Islamabad government in Kabul.

Pakistan is also worried about the broader implications of a new civil war in the country or a Taliban- controlled Afghanistan.

Finally, while Ankara has suggested that Pakistani troops join its mission - possibly to provide another layer of legitimacy and protection to Turkish troops - some Pakistanis believe that their country has no appetite to deploy personnel.

Assuming that Turkish troops do eventually run and secure Kabul’s international airport, it will still not address the matter of who will be protecting diplomatic convoys inside the country and those arriving at the airport.

Accordingly, questions remain about the feasibility of securing the airport if convoys arriving at it or departing from it do not enjoy the required levels of security.

Ali Bakir is a research assistant Professor at Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social
Sciences, a political risk analyst, and consultant. 

He follows geopolitical and security trends in the Middle East, with a special focus on Turkey's foreign and defence policies, Turkey-Arab and Turkey-Gulf relations.

Follow him on Twitter: @alibakeer