[Opinion] Turkey’s role in Afghanistan and the Greater Central Asia strategy

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Türkmen Terzi 

US troops and allied forces are scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by mid-July 2021, concluding what will have been America’s longest war. NATO member Turkey intends to remain to provide security for the Afghan capital’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, which connects the war-torn country to the world. Two questions should be explored: Is Turkey taking this risk to please the US government and NATO members in the hope of repairing strained relationships with them, or is it that Ankara’s military expansion in the region is part of its “Greater Central Asia” strategy?

It is plausible that Turkey does not simply want to protect the airport but instead is planning to use the country as a base while expanding its military footprint in this very strategic region.

Kabul’s airport is located at a high altitude in the Hindu Kush mountains. Surrounding areas are unsafe as Taliban forces control more than 20 out of 34 provinces in the landlocked country. The airport remains a critical access point for international staff as well as for millions of Afghans. It appears that no other country or security company is willing or ready to provide a quick solution for security at the airport, which is necessary to keep embassies and international organizations operational. The Afghan government and military currently rely on billions of dollars in aid from these diplomatic missions and NGOs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed that it was not Ankara’s decision but rather the United States which requested that Turkey remain behind in Afghanistan to guard and run Kabul’s airport after the US-led NATO forces depart. “If they don’t want us to pull out of Afghanistan, US diplomatic, logistical and financial support is important,” Erdoğan told journalists following his first bilateral meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14. “What are our conditions? Political, financial and logistical support,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper this week.

Turkish media have reported that Erdoğan seeks certain concessions in return for continuing to provide security at the Afghan capital’s airport. Ankara in turn hopes for permission from the US to use its Russian S-400 air defense system as well as a guarantee that Turkey can return to the US F-35 fighter jet project.

The Trump administration announced the expulsion of Turkey from F-35 production in May 2019, and the US government formally removed Turkey from F-35 program in an updated MOU in April 2021. The US says the S-400s are incompatible with NATO systems and urges Turkey to give up the Russian defense system.

Erdoğan has proposed securing the Hamid Karzai Airport with the support of Hungary and Pakistan following the departure of the US-led NATO force.

The Taliban views Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces and end the two-decade-long war as a victory and has carried out deadly attacks against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) across the country. Taliban leaders refused to participate in the Afghan talks in Istanbul in April and warned the Turkish government against joining a combat mission in Afghanistan. “The Republic of Turkey should not make such a big mistake, which is neither for Turkey’s good nor that of the future of Afghans. It is not appropriate for an Islamic country to be at enmity with another Islamic country on behalf of the occupying infidels,” Sputnik News quoted Dr Muhammad Naeem, spokesman of the political office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), unofficially known as the Taliban, as saying.

As part of NATO, Turkish troops have not been too deeply involved in combat missions in Afghanistan for the last two decades and instead provide logistical support and train Afghan security personnel. Ankara has maintained ties with the Taliban as well as with General Dostum, the leader of the Uzbek ethnic minority in Afghanistan who served as vice president from 2014 to 2020. In addition to Turkic groups in northern Afghanistan, Ankara has good relations with Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan politician who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai, who was the first elected president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2014. On the other hand, Turkey no longer pursues a peaceful, passive, humanitarian foreign policy but instead has taken a more forceful approach on many fronts on different continents while pursuing security diplomacy. Military and security issues have become increasingly dominant in Ankara’s recent relations with the Central Asian Turkic states. Erdoğan, who was the first Turkish president to visit Uzbekistan in 16 years, signed a $3 billion security deal with the Uzbek government in 2016. Turkey’s recent military success in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh came as a result of its drone technology, and Ankara definitely plans on using drones in the region of Afghanistan, one of the most unstable countries in the world.

Turkey tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring to increase its influence in the region but largely failed. Turkish President Erdoğan had visited Egypt as well as various North African countries in the hope of portraying his country as a role model for Middle Eastern Arab countries as Turkey has a secular democracy with its predominantly Muslim population. However, Erdoğan himself clearly exhibited autocratic tendencies as evidenced by the harsh crackdown on nationwide protests against his rule in 2013. Since then, Turkey has been isolated in the region. Ankara currently has a strained relationship with the major powers in the Middle East region — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 advanced air defense system as well as gas exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean have had a devastating effect on Ankara’s relations with EU nations and Washington. Turkey also has tense relations with Moscow since supplying a wide range of equipment to Ukraine.

Ankara feels globally and regionally isolated; however, the Turkish army continues to pursue an active military role in Somalia, Libya, Azerbaijani’s Karabagh territory, Syria and northern Iraq. Ankara now plans on receiving financial support from NATO members to protect the Afghan airport and remaining in the region, a region that shares borders with Turkey’s historic rivals China and Russia. Turkey wants to work with Pakistan in the region, but Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told the AfPak File podcast on June 17 that there is a long-standing trilateral between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey but that these three countries couldn’t secure peace in the region. As TRT journalist Tanya Goudsouzian mentioned in the same podcast, Ankara’s Afghanistan mission forms part of its Central Asia security diplomacy.

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