Afghanistan: US Withdrawal & Turkey’s Role

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Political Observation - Afghanistan: US Withdrawal & Turkey’s Role

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on 14 June 2021 during a press conference before heading to Brussels to partake in the NATO summit that Turkey was “the only credible country to administer the situation in Afghanistan soundly.” Before this, Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar was quoted by Hürriyet Daily News as saying: “What are our conditions? Political, financial, and logistical assistance. If these are available, we can stay at Hamed Karzai international airport. We are waiting for the answer regarding our conditions.”

It is common knowledge to political observers of Turkish affairs that although President Erdoğan is independent of the US, he has nevertheless been practising politics according to his perception of the rules of engagement and the orientation of the US, and according to his perception of international relationships and the margins of reproachments, understandings, and differences; he has been exploiting the fissures in international relations to achieve nationalistic, economic and political gains, while averting the wrath of the US, and maintaining his gains at the plane of the relationship with Russia and the regional states to avoid the threats that may affect Turkey and consequently undermine his domestic popular base.

In this context, it is imperative to realise that Turkey has not directly taken part in the war in Afghanistan and has contented herself, despite being a NATO member state, with the task of securing Kabul airport, offering humanitarian aid, investing in some projects and training Afghan domestic forces. The Turkish army has refused to be involved in any offensive military operations or any direct military operation.
Hence, Turkey is attempting through her role within NATO and her presence in Afghanistan to emphasise her importance to America and her political and military ability to execute NATO’s tasks and substantiate its continuance in carrying out international missions, while Europe has been attempting to distance herself from such ventures. This fits into the framework of Erdoğan’s perception of America’s aims behind withdrawing from Afghanistan, paving the way for the Taliban to control the border crossings with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, and of her desire to keep Afghanistan a hotbed of tension and a threat to China and the Belt and Road Initiative, as per the “Pivot towards Asia” theory devised by Hilary Clinton in 2011 to engross China and Russia in Central Asia by inducing them to jostle for it.

Hence, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a security challenge to China which shares a border with the pocket of the Badakhshan Wilaya, which has recently fallen into the hands of the Taliban; this poses a security threat to China with the presence of pro-Taliban Islamic movements aspiring to salvage the Uyghurs from Chinese oppression in Xinjiang province, which is at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This was corroborated in President Joe Biden’s recent speech where he described China as the biggest strategic threat to the US in the next 20 years. It also fits into the framework of Erdoğan’s vision of the interests Turkey could achieve in exchange for securing Kabul airport, establishing contact with the Taliban, and possibly, gaining a share in Afghan reconstruction contracts. All this falls within the sphere of the Turko-American understanding which is built on the principle of exchanging, harnessing and investing in the areas of common interest, despite their differences over other files. This understanding on Afghanistan is designed to induce rivalry and tension between Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and India, which America has encouraged to invest in Afghanistan. This is why the Taliban’s advance targeted the northern borders i.e., Tajikistan, which is adjacent to the Chinese borders, and Turkmenistan, which is adjacent to Iran, which, together with Russia, Turkey, and Qatar has recently been attempting to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This Turko-American course and understanding have materialised despite America’s manoeuvring to exert pressure on Erdoğan through the Taliban’s objection to the presence of Turkish troops in Afghanistan, especially as Erdoğan needs to mellow his relationship with Biden, lest the latter should target him and destroy his efforts and economic and political gains which enhance the chances of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the forthcoming elections.

America is expected to instruct Qatar to soften the Taliban’s stance on Turkish presence in Afghanistan to maintain NATO’s presence and using Turkish impartiality towards Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, thus enabling control of the Afghan society while thwarting the covetous designs of China and Russia to gain a central role in the Afghan equation.

Turkey had insisted that Hungary and Pakistan should also stay in Afghanistan because despite being a NATO member state, Hungary does not have the clout and influence to compete with her. Turkey does not fear Pakistan’s presence in the Afghan file and views her presence as imperative since she has enjoyed significant influence in Afghanistan at popular, tribal, and military intelligence levels since 1979, not to mention her role in establishing the Taliban in 1993 at the behest of America herself.

This is why Russia is averse to the Turkish role in Afghanistan. Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov stated that “Turkey’s plans to secure Kabul airport after America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan violated the agreements concluded with the Taliban.” This is because Russia does not welcome increased Turkish influence in Central Asia adding to her existing influence such as in Azerbaijan and gaining more leverage, or exerting more pressure on Russia, such as her cooperation with Ukraine. Russia wants a relationship of cooperation and mellow atmospheres rather than a rivalry with Turkey. She also wants to shift Turkey from the position of being her equal and to keep her in need of her help in confronting the West or at least neutralise her. Turkey however wants to corroborate her role and break the siege that America and Russia are attempting to impose on her beyond her borders. This is what Erdoğan expressed on Friday 26 June 2021: “If Turkey failed to establish a strong security belt abroad, they would not allow us to enjoy our stability in our homeland.” Turkey is attempting to monopolise the energy supply routes from Central Asia to Europe, including the energy routes from Afghanistan; this is why America allowed the Taliban to control the whole of Afghanistan and backed its accession to power in 1996.

Turkey hopes to have influence over the pipelines and transport routes within the framework of her designs to become the most important energy centre in Europe, following the major oil discoveries in three onshore wells, the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is also likely to offer her technological abilities in extracting Afghan oil, especially since the Taliban are vehemently attempting to seize eight oil wells in the northern province of Sar-e Pol currently being exploited by the Afghan government.

2 Thil Hijjah 1442h
12 July 2021