Turkey’s tricky balancing act in Afghanistan
Turkey last month volunteered to assume the management and security of Kabul airport in Afghanistan and negotiations are now underway with the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban to sort out the details. NATO has admitted that this mission suits Turkey better than its other members.
The Turks have traditionally enjoyed a deep-rooted friendship with Afghans. Afghanistan was the first country to recognize Turkey in 1921. King Amanullah Khan was very much inspired and impressed by the Kemalist reforms in Turkey. After his visit there in 1928, the king wanted to accelerate the pace of reforms in Afghanistan. Then-Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk strongly supported him in his endeavors, but advised him not to go too fast, because he thought that Afghan society might not be as receptive to such reforms as republican Turkey was.
The cooperation extended by Turkey to Afghanistan in the late 1920s is considered by the UN to be the first example of technical assistance to a foreign country. The assistance covered military and medical training, as well as music and art.
The first modern hospitals and maternity wards in Afghanistan were established by Turkish medical teams. Afghan veterinarians were trained by their Turkish colleagues. Makeshift pharmaceutical research laboratories were established with the assistance of Turkish pharmacists. And Queen Soraya of Afghanistan was so excited with the pace of the reforms that she donated part of her real estate to the Turkish Embassy, together with several buildings.
However, if Ankara does eventually assume the mission at Kabul airport, it will be fraught with risks and may ultimately undo the role model image that it has built over the last century.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen last week said that “any foreign troops left in Afghanistan after NATO’s September withdrawal will be at risk as occupiers.” Of course, this includes Turkish soldiers.
He denied that fighting had taken place between Taliban and government forces, claiming that many districts had fallen to the group through mediation after Afghan soldiers refused to fight. However, this statement has been contradicted by the facts from Badakhshan province, where 1,037 government soldiers fleeing a Taliban onslaught had to cross the border to Tajikistan to save their lives.
Since the negotiations between Turkey and the US are not yet concluded, the two sides probably do not yet see eye to eye.
The Kabul airport mission will be fraught with risks and may ultimately undo the role model image that Ankara has built over the last century.
Turkey’s mission entails risks and opportunities. The risks are potential clashes with the Taliban, which are tantamount to declaring war on Afghanistan. The chances of Turkey subduing the Taliban are nil. As for the opportunities, Ankara will be contributing to the stabilization of Afghanistan, but this will be a colossal task.
On the Afghan side, the attitude of the people may be tainted with misgivings. There must be millions of Afghans who hold NATO — and, by implication, Turkey — responsible for the hardships they have suffered since 2001. Furthermore, the Taliban is not a monolithic movement. Tribal differences are widespread and the attitude toward Turkey will be shaped according to these tribal differences. Some factions may disobey the leadership if they see a contradiction between their interpretation of Shariah and the orders they receive.
On the Turkish side, there is clear reluctance among an important part of public opinion. This reluctance stems from the worry that the century-old positive perception of Turkey among the Afghan people may be bruised if Taliban and Turkish soldiers clash.
However, there is an additional reason for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to volunteer to assume this task: He needs a success story because of the many things going wrong in the economy and the poor record of the rule of law in Turkey.
One advantage is Erdogan’s ideological affinity with some conservative quarters in Afghanistan. A 1985 picture shows Erdogan kneeling down in front of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-e-Islami political party, who is known for his radical views. This past relationship may half open a door with the Taliban.
When we talk of the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, another factor is Iran. In the past, the Taliban used to consider the adherents of the Shiite sect as infidels. Considering itself as the patron of the Shiites, Tehran was doing its best to protect the Hazara minority in Afghanistan. It has intensified its initiatives as the NATO departure date draws nearer. Last week, it invited Taliban and Afghan government delegations to Tehran and moderated a debate between them to discuss the problems in Afghanistan after the departure of NATO.
Pakistan — because of its inextricable ties with the Taliban — and regional actors China and Russia are also very interested in the future of Afghanistan.
Given this complicated environment, Turkey will have to make gigantic efforts to be successful in this challenging task.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar