By Yanis Iqbal
USA has been launching airstrikes across Afghanistan as part of an effort to support Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in their offensives against the Taliban. The southern Kandahar and northern Kunduz provinces have been the focus of the military campaigns. Even as Taliban is being held up in its quest to take over the country, Turkey has been stretching its diplomatic sinews. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going ahead with his plans to take over security at the Kabul international airport after the pullout of US troops. On July 22, 2021, Mir Rahman Rahmani, the speaker of Afghanistan’s House of the People, had a phone conversation with Mustafa Şentop, Turkey’s Parliament Speaker. The former said: “We support all initiatives taken by Turkey for safeguarding Kabul airport…We believe that the Turkish Armed Forces would better assure the security of the airport than other countries.”
A Convergence of Interests
The near simultaneity of Washington’s attacks on Taliban and Ankara’s sustained accentuation of its willingness to supervise Kabul airport brings out the prominent aspects of the emerging US strategy in Afghanistan. Ever since US President Joe Biden announced in late April 2021 that the American Empire would end its longest war by September 11 of the same year, imperial planners have been wading through the muck of geopolitics to fuse the removal of US troops with a continuing security footprint, so that the Taliban does not simply topple the Western-backed government of Ashraf Ghani. Further, American defeat in Afghanistan has necessitated a re-jigging of the outlook toward Central Asia and Caspian Sea oil. Turkey appears to have solved this conundrum by readily stationing itself on the Afghan chessboard as a subcontractor for USA’s ambitions. An alternative route for oil supply has also been found insofar Turkey enjoys increasing influence in Azerbaijan, a Caspian Sea country.
But why has Turkey been selected for the Afghan role? Veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi situates this decision in the global panorama of regional balances. First, “This will be welcome to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia. The last two will be dreaming of the extreme Islam of the Taleban blending with the Akhwan ul Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) of which Erdogan is now an unabashed leader. This will be expected to be a bulwark against Iran.” Second, setting Erdogan off to Kabul will “ration some of his time away from West Asia where the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood causes anxiety to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt whose suppression of the Brothers cannot last eternally… Brothers in Egypt will have a huge morale booster, should Erdogan without other distractions go full throttle in his Muslim Brotherhood avatar. The revival of the Brothers in Egypt will be of considerable help to Hamas which is another name for the Brothers. This will be a thorn in the side of Israel.”
As is evident, a variety of interests converge in the Ankara-Kabul nexus. What’s more, Erdogan’s pivot to Afghanistan can pay political dividends since he has staked claims for the mantle of leadership of the Turkic world stretching from the Black Sea to the steppes of Central Asia. In the words of Naqvi, a Turkish foothold in the Hindu Kush “has the potential of opening vistas across central Asia, an expansive oil rich block of Turkic speaking people.” However, this game plan is not entirely free of conflictual equations. Taliban has castigated Turkey’s offer to protect Kabul’s international airport as “ill-advised, a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and against our national interest”, threatening to treat it as an “occupation”.
China and Russia
Taliban is not the only actor having troubles with Turkey’s military presence. Afghanistan is bounded by China on its northeast and Central Asian states in its north – which in turn share borders with Russia. Both the countries fear that Turkey will seek to support and foment transnational jihadi networks known to be situated in Afghanistan’s north. Turkey’s influential role in consorting with jihadi elements in Syria, facilitating their relocation to Libya and even exporting some to the Nagorno-Karabakh war has – as MK Bhadrakumar remarks – earned the country the notoriety of being “a clone of the US in its genius for manipulating “Islamist terrorists” as geopolitical tools – with the added virtue of being notionally a Muslim country. It can be trusted to navigate the jihadis in the Hindu Kush toward a higher destiny in times ahead.”
Russia’s concerns about its historically explosive Muslim regions will heighten as Turkish engagement in Central Asia increases. This will challenge Ankara’s relationship with Moscow, which is already under strain in Libya, Syria, Caucasus and potentially in the Black Sea and the Balkans. For China, Turkey’s inclusion in the Afghan stakes will spell the prospect of greater trouble in Xinjiang. Turkey is home to a large exiled Uighur community. Erdogan, pursuing pan-Islamist neo-Ottoman goals, has been clamoring about the Uyghur issue for some time. When China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Turkey in March 2021, more than 1000 Uighur protesters were allowed to gather in Istanbul to protest his diplomatic presence. These ideological intonations suggest that Turkey could provide support to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – an ethnic Uighur extremist group responsible for past terror attacks in China and which seeks to transform China’s Xinjiang region into an independent Islamic state.
Thus, China is not only facing a few ETIM fighters in Afghanistan but a possibly well-organized force of jihadist armies backed by state and non-state entities with direct territorial access to Xinjiang via Afghanistan. The deputy governor of Afghanistan’s northern Badakshan province said in a media interview that the militant groups overrunning national forces in the province are largely multi-ethnic, including Tajiks, Chechens, Uyghurs and Uzbeks. In an article for Asia Times, Salman Rafi Sheikh notes: “While currently allied with the Taliban, the transitional jihadis could switch sides and become a Turkish insurgent proxy if they perceive the Taliban seeks to abandon them in exchange for China’s, Russia’s and Iran’s diplomatic recognition and potential aid for reconstruction.”
From March 2021 to July 2021, the number of Afghan refugees rose from around 8,000 to 26,000 people, an increase of 229%. Refugee displacement has ended up on Turkey’s eastern borders. In 2020, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) figures showed Afghans as the largest migrant group hazarding the dangerous sea crossing in the Aegean, from Turkey into Greece. The international body put the number of Afghan asylum seekers Turkey hosts at 125,104 in a 2020 report. Yet, many analysts estimate the number of irregular immigrants of Afghan origin in the country to be more than 500,000. Turkish authorities caught more than 25,000 irregular immigrants of Afghan origin in the first half of 2021. On July 19, 2021, security forces detained nearly 1,500 migrants, most of them Afghans, near the country’s southeastern border with Iran, as well as 11 people on suspicion of human trafficking.
The moral squalidity of the refugee problem created by the Afghan cauldron needs to be redressed. Yet, the world-system under which we live is not going to allow a durable resolution of this brutality. While the West and its allies build strong fortresses to keep the mass of humanity out of their national frontiers, the exploitative mechanisms of imperialism create the conditions for mass displacement. Both of these processes go hand in hand, reinforcing each other. The contemporary power politics surrounding Afghanistan exemplifies imperialist carnivoracity for endless wealth-making. Instead of paying attention to the basic needs of the Afghan people and crafting a politically negotiated settlement to the crisis in Kabul, global powers and their lackeys have devised an updated form of opportunist statecraft which plays with the wretched nature of neo-colonies to strengthen and rebalance imperialist agendas.