By Omair Anas
There is a sense of euphoria in Ankara over the unexpected outcome of the Biden-Erdogan efforts to repair their ties; as Turkey will be left in charge of the security of the Kabul Airport after the United States’ (US) withdrawal in August. Washington, however, underplays the development as the new role is not free from serious risks and uncertainties. Pakistani observers, too, have reacted carefully towards Turkey’s upgraded role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. Under normal conditions, Pakistanis would have cheered the diplomatic success of Turkey in securing an important assignment of the NATO. Indians, too, have immediately expressed their apprehensions on how Turkey’s new roles in Afghanistan will fare for their Afghan policy.
For years, US Afghan policy had become an unnecessary liability as the US had zero clarity with regard to the future of Afghanistan. In fact, the US was present without a clear picture as to where it was leading Afghanistan’s political future. The reason that the US lost its plot in Afghanistan is their upside-down relations with Pakistan. Besides, the US no longer sees Central Asia as a primary area of interest in its foreign policy. Rather, the Asia Pacific region has replaced both Central Asia and the Middle East in the US’ strategic calculus. The Asia Pacific has more US allies in want of US immediate help and a far bigger volume of trade transaction at risk from China’s ever-expanding influence in the region and the world. In Central Asia, China’s rise has got one more country to worried more than the US — Russia. So, leaving Turkey behind in Afghanistan is less risky and strategically affordable for the US to secure sensitive and important installations, such as the Kabul International Airport.
History of Afghan-Turkish ties
Afghanistan is one such country that has always appeared prominently in Turkey’s strategic outlook of Asia. From 1870 onwards, Afghanistan was the centre of British-Turkish coordination against the Russian Empire; in the 1910s, Kabul was a centre of Turkish-German efforts against the British rule in India, with the establishment of the first provisional government of India under the leadership of Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh. Raja Sahab had close ties with the Ottoman officials and had a direct audience with the Caliph. This centrality of Afghanistan remained unchanged when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came into power. His personal bond with King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan helped King Khan’s modernisation drive of Afghanistan’s education, healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure. The Saadabad Pact of 1939 was signed in view of Russia and China’s expansion around Afghanistan as India was still struggling to free itself from the British colonial yoke. As Britain left India in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided into two sovereign territories, India and Pakistan. Gradually, Pakistan replaced Afghanistan and Afghanistan gradually faded from Turkey’s strategic outlook.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an international Jihad was waged against the Soviets, facilitated by the US, financed by Saudi Arabia, and launched from Pakistan. Even though Pakistan-Turkey relations have progressed well from that point, Saudi Arabia, not Turkey, became more important to Pakistan’s security and defence policy, particularly in Pakistan’s West Asia relations. Pakistan and Turkey have disagreed on a number of issues about the future of Afghanistan. Historically, Turkey sees the Turkic ethnic groups, the Uzbeks and Hazaras, and Tajiks as their natural allies. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, is still Ankara’s closest Afghan ally. Pakistan, on the other hand, has lost most of the Afghan allies it had made during the anti-Soviet Jihad, and the Taliban remains the only force on which Pakistan depends. With their known anti-India and anti-Iran positions, Taliban unites Pakistan and Gulf monarchies, mainly Saudi Arabia, who see Iran as an existential threat. As the Taliban have tactically moderated their anti-Iran and anti-India rhetoric, and have assured Russia and China too of their compliance to a China–Russia-led vision of peace, Pakistan couldn’t secure a role for Turkey after the US withdrawal.
Turkey’s new role
The new role of Turkey in Afghanistan is as problematic for Pakistan as for the Taliban. Only a few days ago, Turkic ethnic groups had held a protest against Taliban asking a fair share in the future settlement of Afghanistan or they will demand for a separate “South Turkistan” for Turkic ethnic groups. Even though such separatist sentiments do not exist on the ground, their symbolic message, however, was directed more towards Pakistan than the Taliban. This is a unique situation for Pakistan where it must take its “brother country” Turkey on board and ask the Taliban to tone down their anti-Turkey rhetoric over the latter’s plan to be the security in charge of the Kabul Airport. It was not surprising that Saudi Arabian media too is highlighting the Taliban’s reactions against Turkish plans to stay in Afghanistan. Turkey is yet to come out with any response to these statements. Apparently, Turkey is not happy with Taliban’s refusal to join the Istanbul dialogue that had been planned to be hosted in April.
The question is, why did the US agree to such a crucial role for Turkey at a time when its relations with Turkey were at its lowest ebb? Turkey and the US, regardless of their agreements, have at least one common interest, to stop the complete collapse of the Kabul government; to keep the Kabul government in control of the situation until an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned dialogue for a final political settlement succeeds. Both Russia and China know that the Taliban have limited military power to take over Kabul. Their attempt to take over Kabul will only end with chaos and civil war. The Taliban lacks political power to establish an order that is accepted by most of Afghan ethnic groups and war lords. Once Kabul collapses, it would rather require another international intervention. Turkey’s staying back can possibly prevent or at least delay the worst case scenario. Turkey’s support to the UN-recognised government in Libya and retaliation against Syrian military in 2020, both with effective deployment of drones, had changed the dynamics of conflict management and conflict resolution. In supporting the UN-recognised government of Kabul, Turkey and the US will legally be authorised in stopping the Taliban from taking complete control of Afghanistan, unless they join a meaningful dialogue as part of their agreement with the Trump administration. Can Taliban really go that far against Turkey and use violence against Turkish interests in Afghanistan? If this happens, it would not be possible without Pakistan’s tacit approval. That is the deterrence that the US hopes Turkey provides with its confident relations with Pakistan.
Earlier, India was supposed to be in the same role, had India not been poor in its strategic calculations and been reluctant to be party to the international expectations of being a part of the solution in Afghanistan. Perhaps, Indian policymakers expected an indefinite or prolonged stay of the US in Afghanistan. An unexpected role of Turkey in Afghanistan has not come without some support of Pakistan. The prevention of the collapse of the Kabul-based government will help not only a meaningful dialogue, but also, the return of Afghanistan back to the 1990s. India must join the international and regional efforts to stop the fall of Kabul, an objective which should unite the US, Turkey, and the Kabul government.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).