Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G20 New Delhi summit
As world leaders, greeted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan move stood out. To the surprise of many, Erdoğan backed India for a permanent seat at the UNSC. In turn Ankara’s refreshing new initiative raised many intriguing questions. Did this reflect winds of change in Ankara’s stance towards South Asia? Did it demonstrate a new policy towards Pakistan/Afghanistan? Were Turkish ambitions towards Central Asia taking a new route?
— ANI (@ANI) September 10, 2023
For decades, Turkey’s South Asia policy has been centred on Pakistan. Under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit in 2001, considerable efforts were made to make Ankara’s policy less dependent (on Pakistan). However, Afghanistan took greater precedent in Ankara’s foreign policy post-NATO’s military campaign in 2002. The then ruling party AKP, made cautious efforts to bolster relations with the erstwhile republic governments, without aliening their relations with Pakistan and Iran, with a hope to steer Afghan politics.
Being the only Muslim country in NATO, Turkey’s influence in Afghanistan grew exponentially, a reflection which was visible from the increasing presence of Turkish military and civilian nomination in various ISAF decision making structures. Turkish nationals began to be nominated in key/critical appointments, with Hikmet Çetin, the former Turkish foreign minister serving as NATO’s first Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, and Lieutenant General Hilmi Akin Zorlu & Lieutenant General Ethem Erdağı, serving as commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). With that, Turkey deployed over 500 troops in the region, but refrained from engaging in active combat. The Taliban too were reluctant to target Turkish convoys, with the exception of one isolated instance, according to a former NATO official. This enabled Turkey to maintain a balance between the West and the local people, sending the symbolic message of sympathy and compassion, through its formidable soft power machine.
GLF Member Hikmet Cetin recently spoke to Hurriyet Daily News. He spoke about Peace in Afghanistan and the importance of a political solution. Here is the full interview: https://t.co/Da4oJiOHRr pic.twitter.com/FuR7uwKOkr
— Global Leadership Foundation (@G_L_F_2004) March 30, 2020
While some term Ankara’s Afghan policy as a steppingstone to enter South Asian (regional) political space, many argue on its traditional centrality on Pakistan. With Taliban in power, Afghanistan’s strategic value has once again elevated. Which means, Islamabad may no longer define Turkey’s South Asian policy. On the contrary, it may reflect ambitions for prospective engagements with the new rulers, guarding the gateway to South & Central Asia.
Mapping Ankara’s engagement with Taliban
Turkey has been engaging with the new rulers even before Kabul fell. In summer of 2021, Erdoğan openly expressed his willingness to engage with the Taliban, terming them as moderate, sowing the seeds of Turkish-Taliban relations. For Taliban, Turkey at first, was interpreted of having alliances with the erstwhile republic regime, but religious interpretations/discourse and influence through Turks within Taliban ranks, bridged the gap. Furthermore, Ankara was one stop shop to humanitarian assistance. It had the means, mechanisms and experiences to assist the nation witnessing severe humanitarian crisis. For Ankara, limited soft infrastructures: such as schools, humanitarian aid institutions, came with direct connect with the leadership in Kabul, opening doors to the region.
This resulted, Taliban inviting Turkey, one of the six nations besides China & Russia, for its inaugural ceremony. Since then, Turkish institutions have thrived in the past two years. Its embassy remains functional without an incident, and Turkish schools remains open, without being contested by Taliban leadership.
— The Taliban Times (@Taliban_times) May 28, 2023
An emphasis on Turkic decent
From the purview of domestic politics, the fate of Turkic decent (especially Uzbeks and Turkmen) holds precedent in Ankara’s Afghan policy. In various bilateral engagements, Turkey raised the issue of integrating Uzbeks and Turkmens within the cabinet, strengthening a narrative to score some points in domestic politics. But Taliban did not consider these demands, highlighting Turkey’s limited influence (if at all) over political decisions.
That said, this did not refrain Ankara on bolstering political ties with ethnic Turkmen & Uzbeks within Taliban; Playing both sides, Ankara not did not hesitate to host ethnic Uzbeks from the erstwhile republic, notably Abdul Rashid Dostum. The saga of hosting anti-Taliban leaders increased in 2022, with Afghans especially from the elite, continued to be housed in Ankara since last year. Besides Marshal Dostum, Turkey played a host to leaders of Jamiat-e Islami, ethnic Hazaras, and key officials of erstwhile Islamic republic. Initially, Ankara may have explored the opportunity to unite anti-Taliban leaders, but soon forfeited the idea due to their declining popularity in the region.
Playing both sides may have caused a balancing problem in Turkey’s Afghan policy. Their emphasis on bolstering ties with ethnic Turks resulted in opportunities in terms of scholarships and exchange programs. For an ethnic Turkmen or Uzbek, Turkey is land of opportunities, making a distinction against Pashtuns, which may alienate Taliban. It remains unclear whether Turkey’s ethnic emphasis have received some response from the Taliban, albeit criticism, but Ankara’s willingness to host anti-Taliban coalition will alienate Taliban, especially those Pashtuns hailing from Northern Provinces, living among ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmen for generations. Is Ankara hoping for non-Pashtuns (within the Rahbari Shura) to perhaps, gain influence in the years to come and strengthen Turkey’s position in region? And assist them in making inroads to Central Asian neighbours?
Factors influencing Turkey’s Afghan policy
With nations returning to Afghanistan bearing economic/humanitarian propositions, Turkey is anxious to find its foot on the ground, with an intent to stay. However, their emphasis on one particular ethnicity may attract risks, but also open doors for possible engagement, offering lucrative opportunities, if Turkey does decide to stay.
A door to the left, a bridge to the West
After the fall of Kabul, Turkey expressed explicit desire to run the Kabul International Airport, perhaps not from a perspective of humanitarian support or sheer goodness at heart but with an intent to retain significance for Washington, and demonstrate usefulness, from their sheer presence to NATO and allies. It would also demonstrate its ability to make decisions on foreign policy, independently, outside NATO influence, reflecting an image of a determined partner, at least to the Taliban. This paved the way to negotiations for the transfer of airport authority during the Biden-Erdogan talks in Brussels. With Taliban opposing such a move, the talks proved to be productive, bridging the gap between Washington & Ankara.
Taking the note of Ankara’s regional aspirations, through its presence in Kabul, it hopes to become a key point of contact between Taliban and the West, perhaps elevating to the role of a regional mediator in the times ahead. Although, the recent delegation visits by members from the private sector in the US, accompanied by Afghan investors from the United Arab Emirates, meeting Taliban officials directly in Kabul, may derail Ankara’s ambition. With Washington echoing prospective engagements in the future, Ankara’s hopes of being a major NATO ally on Afghan soil, may seem to fade, with Washington expressing willingness in reaching out to Taliban directly, through other means.
The fate of refugees
By the beginning of 2022, over 22000 Afghans had moved to designated satellite places/areas formally established by Ankara. Most Afghans preferred stay in Istanbul, taking note of opportunities and smuggling/racketeering networks, hoping to use these services to unite with their families or make a move across Mediterranean. Taking note of Afghan refugee influx in Istanbul, Ankara designated satellite provinces along with the Aegean, in the industrial cities of Isparta and Denizli, and Malatya in Eastern Anatolia, with an intent to curtail movement across the Mediterranean. With time, the influx of refugees in the designated satellite provinces overwhelmed local services, forcing Ankara to begin deportation of unregistered refugees.
— Sajjad Nuristani (@SajjadNuristan) April 18, 2023
According to a scholar at the Istanbul University, besides deportation, Ankara does not have a concrete policy of repatriating refugees. From the outset, according to her, the government’s response is more spontaneous than policy-oriented/systematic. The reaction is purely based on real time developments. According to another scholar, Ankara’s response mechanism is mostly to put a lid, in the light of Erdogan’s victory in the recent elections, painting the issue as irregular migrant flow, at least to AKP voters. On enquiring Ankara’s migration plan, an expert on refugee policy, pointed towards its possible existence, at least on paper, without any hope of implementation.
It appears Ankara may club the issue of refugee influx from Afghanistan with that of Syria, in its policy approach. With AKP voters in consensus with opposition party’s call for deportation, Ankara may not have much of choice, but to deport.
A gateway to Central Asia
Turkey’s Afghan policy has regional ambitions embedded in it. It aims to strengthen its position in Afghanistan with an intent to extend its influence in Afghan neighbours of Central and South Asia. If Ankara does manage to thrive, it may pose serious challenges to ambitions of regional economies including Pakistan and Iran. As stated above, with an experience and exposure to Pakistani foreign policy, it is unclear how Islamabad will react, if at all. It may, however, see benefits in Ankara’s economic and infrastructure development initiatives, if the latter deems to implement.
Regional players like China & Iran, deem to play more significant role, with Turkey, secondary at least for a few years. That would, however, provide necessary space for Ankara to expand the great game and the AKP to strengthen its regional base. This could enable Ankara to expand its political and economic ambitions in Central Asia, first, before moving to the South.
Infrastructure assistance or natural resource?
According to a scholar affiliated with the Ankara University, Turkey conducted a detailed in-house analysis on Afghanistan’s natural resources, with a special emphasis on lithium, gold, with secondary priority on coal and gas. This could point towards a motivated Ankara to explore investment opportunities in mining, pharmaceuticals, and infrastructure development. In a discussion with a Turkish expert on humanitarian aid, he emphasised on Erdoğan’s ambition to explore mining opportunities in Afghanistan with an emphasis on oil (which according to a report published by the erstwhile Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in 2019) is estimated at 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil, over 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 500 million barrels of natural gas.
Turkey aims to revive/transform Afghanistan’s economy. Taking a look at proposed Afghan new economic policy (still under review), it aims to revive Afghanistan’s energy sector due to its criticality in Afghan economy (according to Ankara nominated experts), with a secondary focus on building national infrastructure.
Quest for the airport
Ankara remains ambitious on taking control of the airport, with an intent to establish economic relations with Taliban. This will not only open doors for Turkish goods to flood Afghan markets but provide unique opportunities to AKP-aligned private construction enterprises to invest in long/short term infrastructure projects. With control of the airport, Ankara can regulate international aid flowing into the country.
— Press TV (@PressTV) September 12, 2021
The Kabul International Airport is not new to Turkey. Turkish troops were in-charge of the airport during NATO’s ISAF mission in 2005. Ankara may use this technical know-how as a leverage during its engagement with Taliban, hoping to initiate a technical assistance mission to train Taliban officials or at best appoint civilian contractors to administer airport operations. If proposed from a technical support perspective, Taliban may allow Turkish presence, but it is unclear if it will grant permission to operate the airport individually or counterbalance by nominating Qatar as co-partner. If Taliban permits, it is highly likely for Ankara to agree for a technical support mission, albeit co-joint with Qatar as proposed before.
Turkey’s Afghan policy is critically dependent on its soft power, from strengthening trade relationship to visa relaxations, tourism to culturally driven or education-oriented exchange programs, from Turkish OTTs to music artists. While most of them have been implemented as part of the state’s official soft power engagement, other private initiatives reflect community-based interaction, integrating Afghan society with Turkish way of living. One such example is the growing number of Maarif schools in the country. Until 2019, Turkish Epoch Education Institutions, exercised control over 15 schools and 5 tutoring centres. An agreement between the erstwhile Islamic Republic government and Ankara, resulted transferring of such schools under the state-owned Maarif Foundation, since then functioning as the Afghan-Turkish Maarif Schools.
After the fall of Kabul, Ankara proposed to expand the number of schools, in according with the 2018 plan. Today, according to one estimate, Maarif exercises control over 31 schools with 12 schools dedicated to women education (both primary and secondary), and a few functioning as elementary schools providing co-education.
That said, Turkey was one of the few countries tasked to provide educational opportunities to Afghan Local & Provincial Police Forces, with some Non-Commissioned Officers of the erstwhile Afghan Army receiving academic scholarships, bagging opportunities to study in Turkey. The scholarships continued even after the fall, and by 2023, Afghan students became one of the top three nationalities studying in Turkey.
Besides Turkish Non-Governmental Organizations, private NGOs and religious based humanitarian institutions continue to seek volunteers for various projects in the region. That said, Taliban have, on numerous occasions, accused Ankara of aligning with Uzbeks, general Afghan society have responded positively so far. Their ability to appeal/engage with all ethnic communities, distinguishes Turkey from other regional actors.
Although Afghanistan remains a significant issue at all major platforms, since the fall of Kabul in 2021, the global attention seems to have faded away with time, elevating the current crisis to a meagre regional issue of South & Central Asia.
That said, for Turkey, the situation in Afghanistan remains a primary importance in its overall foreign policy. After Erdogan’s election victory, Afghanistan provides a unique opportunity to bridge its domestic and foreign policy with economic diplomacy, unique in its own.
From an Afghan policy perspective, Turkey might present itself as a key bridge between Taliban and EU economies and portraying itself as a regional power among the ranks of Iran, India, China & Russia. It may propose to bridge communications between European economies and Kabul, with an intent to elevate as a key mediator in the region. Ankara may invite EU enterprises for economic engagement (under Turkey’s leadership) in the region and propose joint venture initiatives between EU & Turkish enterprises. By controlling the airport and influx of Turkish products, Ankara may project Afghanistan as a key regional export market, supplemented with opportunities in energy and infrastructure projects.
(Anant Mishra specialises on Afghanistan, where he has served three combat deployments. He was adviser to key military and civilian leaders of the Ashraf Ghani government. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)