"Afghanistan and Turkey are Two Brother Countries"
Turkey's Foreign Policy Benefits in Afghanistan
Jörg Kronauer, journalist and author
Persistence pays off. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not seem to be getting his way with his original plan that soldiers from Turkey should take over the security of Hamid Karzai International Airport in the Afghan capital Kabul. Erdoğan had discussed this with U.S. President Joe Biden on June 14 on the sidelines of the NATO summit, when the Taliban's rapid takeover of power in Afghanistan was not yet really foreseeable. He had then proposed the plan, which would have been quite useful as a lever of influence for Ankara, to the Taliban, but had met with granite from them: Having troops from a NATO country operate on Afghan territory was completely unthinkable to them, even if it was the only Islamic NATO country. As it stands, however, Turkey will gain influence elsewhere in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. At any rate, that is what statements by the second deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, indicate.
"Afghanistan and Turkey are two brother countries," praised Hanafi, who served a stint as education minister in the first Taliban regime (1996 to 2001) and was also recently part of the Islamists' negotiating team in Qatar's capital, Doha, in an interview with Turkey's Anadolu news agency in late September. "The friendly relations between the two nations are so old," he affirmed, "that one side cannot be separated from the other." The man's praise did not come out of thin air. The Taliban are in existential need of aid, given the dramatic hardship in Afghanistan after the West's withdrawal. In their efforts to gain international recognition, they also need other states as advocates. What could be more obvious than to turn to Turkey, which has been trying for years to strengthen its position in the Hindu Kush not only politically but also with development aid? "Our expectation from the Turkish people," Hanafi expressed, "is that they help the Afghan people, in education, in health care, and in all areas where people are needed."
Erdoğan doesn't need to be told twice. Ankara has long since begun to put its money where its mouth is. Cihad Erginay, Turkey's ambassador to Afghanistan, negotiated with Afghanistan's new minister of energy and water, Abdul Latif Mansoor, on September 24, just one day after his first meeting with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. Mansoor subsequently let it be known that good relations and cooperation with Turkey would continue and even expand, while the Turkish Embassy said, "Turkish companies are maintaining their investments in Afghanistan, and we hope to expand this cooperation in the near future for the benefit of the Afghan people." Turkish construction companies, for example, have long been warming up for the reconstruction of the war-torn country. On Sept. 29, Erginay met Nooruddin Azizi, minister of trade and industry, to discuss expanding trade. At the same time, aid deliveries began through the Turkish Red Crescent. However, Turkish support does not come for free. Erdoğan and Turkish government officials have meanwhile repeatedly stressed that the Taliban government is "not inclusive"; that this should change. Admittedly, they caveat that one must be "realistic" with one's expectations.
Turkey is also in a favorable position vis-à-vis the Taliban because it cooperates very closely with Qatar. In contrast to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for example, both states are committed to close cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. When Qatar was completely blockaded by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other states in June 2017 - some in Doha even feared a Saudi invasion - Ankara increased the number of troops at its military base in the Gulf state, which was only established in 2015, and also otherwise jumped to the country's side. Conversely, the emirate has now reportedly invested $22 billion in Turkey. Qatar, in turn, is the state where the Taliban established an office in 2013, through which they organized their negotiations with the United States, among other things. At times, as many as 100 senior Taliban officials are believed to have been in Qatari exile. Fresh to power in August, the Taliban then also allowed Qatar in return to allow Western foreigners to leave the country through its embassy in Kabul. Doha has sent experts to Kabul airport to create all the technical conditions for regular flight operations - and it is cooperating with Ankara in this.
Influence in Afghanistan has foreign policy benefits for Turkey in several respects. First, it is the only NATO country that currently not only has a diplomatic mission in Kabul, but also has something to say there. This enhances its standing vis-à-vis the other NATO members, not least the U.S., with which it is engaged in hard conflicts elsewhere. In addition, new opportunities for cooperation with Russia could arise. Ankara and Moscow negotiate the course of events in Syria, have strong influence in Libya, and are the authoritative outside powers in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each supporting opposing forces. "Afghanistan could become a new chapter in this book," judged Zaur Gasimov, a specialist on Eastern Europe and Turkey at the University of Bonn, in mid-September. Last but not least, intensive cooperation with China is on the horizon. Relations between the two countries have recently gained considerable momentum, said Abdulkadir Emin Önen, Turkey's ambassador to Beijing, in an interview with the Chinese newspaper Global Times in mid-September: They could now be significantly expanded in fields such as energy and infrastructure in the context of the upcoming reconstruction of the Hindu Kush, Önen said. He explicitly referred to China's "New Silk Road.
In concrete terms, Ankara also wants to strengthen its position in Central Asia. Most recently, it succeeded in gaining direct access to Azerbaijan by opening the Zangezur Corridor, a land link from the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to the latter's heartland. This opens up the land route to the Caspian Basin for Turkey and, via the Caspian Sea, also the route to Central Asia with its immense oil and natural gas reserves. If Erdoğan succeeds in securing influence for his country in Afghanistan, Ankara would gain considerable weight in Central Asia at a stroke. This, in turn, is a plan that has always been cherished in Turkey, especially by Pan-Turkic nationalists. Turkic languages are very widespread in Central Asia; they are also spoken in Afghanistan by the Uzbek and Turkmen minorities. To create a huge Turkish sphere of influence in Central Asia based on this - this is what ultra-right forces in Turkey have been striving for for a long time.
In terms of power politics, one thing remains true: Cooperation with the Taliban is risky. It is not yet clear how their regime will ultimately develop. Cooperating with a state that cuts off the hands of thieves and hangs kidnappers from cranes is not necessarily good for one's own reputation. However, Erdoğan is known to have few inhibitions about teaming up with the most rabid Islamists if they only bring him influence. This is demonstrated not least by Turkey's de facto support for the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in northern Syria, which for its part enthusiastically welcomed the Taliban's takeover of Kabul.
This article was first published in the November/December 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.