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Power vacuum in Afghanistan: Turkey’s new approach to revive neo-Ottomanism

Given the current political landscape in Afghanistan with Taliban advancing on the ground and amid the worrying signs that portend the fall of Afghanistan under the grip of Taliban which would bring the country back to square one and the fierce rivalry between countries to fill the vacuum after the US and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled next September, Turkey seeks to become part of the equation in Afghanistan. 

Last month, Turkey proposed to keep its forces in Afghanistan for guarding and running Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport provided that its allies commit to providing the necessary political, financial, and logistical support, as stated by the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar.

The past period saw discussions of the Turkish proposal between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Basically, the US welcomed the Turkish proposal and an official American delegation was sent to Ankara for further discussions; however, it hasn’t yet taken shape and discussions are still under way.  

While discussions between Washington and Ankara on the Turkish proposal are still ongoing, Taliban has warned Turkey against extending its forces presence in Afghanistan. The latest of these warnings has been evidenced by Taliban’s statement on 13 July 2021, cautioning Turkey of any potential plans of keeping some of its forces in  Afghanistan to run and guard Kabul’s main airport after departure of  the foreign forces, describing Turkey’s plan as being “reprehensible” warning against its dangerous consequences. The statement added that “Turkey’s continuing occupation of Afghanistan would harm the ties between the two countries and develop hatred and hostility against Turkey in Afghanistan.

Turkey’s offer to guard Kabul’s International Airport raises a range of questions on the underlying strategic objectives behind the Turkish proposal. Kabul’s airport is of paramount importance being a passage for diplomatic missions and a gateway for the entry of relief and humanitarian aid; however, Turkey’s real aims go far beyond guarding the airport being a vital installation. So, what are Turkey’s underlying goals? Is the way paved for Ankara to pursue its goals in Afghanistan?

Underlying strategic goals

Before delving into Turkey’s underlying strategic objectives, it is worth noting that Turkey’s interest in Afghanistan is not spur-of-the-moment. Since joining the NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2001, Turkey has sought to infiltrate into Afghanistan through utilizing a soft power policy by providing military consultations, carrying out drills with the Afghan army forces, providing humanitarian and medical aid, and implementing various relief activities in fields of education, health, and infrastructure. Between 2018 and 2020, Turkey’s total development aids to Afghanistan amounted to $150 million. Further strengthening its presence in Afghanistan, Turkey established Kabul University and the Afghan Military Academy and offered internships to hundreds of the Afghan students’ to complete their studies in Turkish universities and institutes.

Over its two-decade presence in Afghanistan, Turkey tended to deal with the Afghan situation neutrally by being open to all actors and avoiding involving in any military and combat operations, as a prelude to a greater opportunity to open up to all actors in the Afghan political landscape, meaning Turkey has been planning for a while to play a role in Afghanistan whenever the opportunity presents itself.

As such, there are many underlying strategic motives behind the Turkish proposal to play the role of the American guard in Afghanistan following departure of the US troops. Most notable among these motives are the following: 

  • Reviving the neo-Ottomanism: The upcoming withdrawal of the US’ and NATO forces from Afghanistan by next September granted Ankara the opportunity to present its proposal to the US offering guarding Kabul’s International Airport, which foreign embassies are likely to use to evacuate their nationals in case the country falls under Taliban’s control.

Turkey’s proposal reflects its willingness to maintain a military foothold in Afghanistan, enabling it to extend its influence to Central Asia following its success in Azerbaijan. Moreover, the Turkish offer aligns with Ankara’s foreign policy pursued in recent years, focusing on filling the vacuum that regional and major powers leave behind, and taking advantage of regional and international incidents to expand its military deployment in line with the Turkish dream of reviving the neo-Ottomanism.

  • Rectifying relations with the US: Turkey wants to rectify its relations with the US, following the recent tensions against the backdrop of the US recognizing and condemning of the Armenian Genocide, Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 defense system, and its destabilizing policies in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.

Aware of the security vacuum that will be left in Afghanistan following withdrawal of the US troops next September, Ankara found it an opportune moment to express to the US its readiness to take over security roles on its behalf in Afghanistan, seeking to curry favor with the American administration capitalizing on the US concern over the stability of Afghanistan after departure of foreign forces and its willingness to serve its agendas and strengthen its influence in the vital Central Asian region.

An analysis by Michael Kugelman for the Foreign Policy magazine on the Turkish proposal shares the same view. In the report, Kugelman stated that “Turkey’s airport security offer may be in part a goodwill measure to convince Washington to ease sanctions on Ankara after its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and allow it back into a US-led F-35 fighter jet program.”

  • Helping Turkey’s struggling economy: Since 2016, Turkey has been going through a severe economic crisis, which manifested itself in the high inflation rate, the collapse of the lira, and the increased unemployment rate. So, Turkey’s security offer can be interpreted within the framework of Turkey’s moves to save its struggling economy. If implemented successfully, Turkey’s security roles might translate into economic gains. On the one hand, Turkey can request an economic return from the allies in return for providing its security services in Afghanistan. Additionally, its security presence in Afghanistan (the heart of Asia) may enable it to expand its projects and economic activities to the Central Asian region –a region that enjoys substantial oil reserves, enormous natural gas reserves reaching 34 percent of global reserves, huge oil reserves amounting to 27 percent of global reserves, and substantial reserves of minerals, cotton, coal, fresh and underground water, all make this region one of the richest regions worldwide. 
  • Underscoring Turkey’s pivotal role in NATO: Erdogan’s proposal to maintain security in Afghanistan under the umbrella of the NATO, reflects Turkey’s desire to emphasize its centrality to the NATO, particularly after its souring relationships with some NATO members with some of them demanding expulsion of Turkey from the NATO due to its provocative activities in Libya, Syria, the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and the eastern Mediterranean, and challenging interests of the Alliance by proceeding with the S-400 defense system deal with Russia. Thus, Ankara’s taking over security roles in Afghanistan on behalf of the NATO countries, would assist calm down tensions surrounding Turkey being an obstreperous NATO partner, and promote its importance and position within the NATO.
  • Mercenaries in Libya: Amid international and public pressures from global and regional powers on Turkey to implement withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Libya, a likely scenario is that Ankara will transfer those mercenaries to Afghanistan as a way to consolidate its foothold there. 

Last year, Ankara transferred Syrian and non-Syrian mercenaries from Libya to support the Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia. So, Afghanistan may be a new arena for the presence of those mercenaries helping Ankara achieve its goals in Afghanistan and get rid of the international pressure with regard to its presence in Libya.

Existing barriers

Turkey’s venture to establish its presence Afghanistan is not that easy; it is a tricky precarious business that faces many challenges, including:

Rejection of Taliban: Following Turkey’s airport security offer, Taliban announced its rejection of Turkey’s keeping forces in Afghanistan after the US and NATO forces departure, confirming that it will treat them as an invading force and would fight them as they had previously fought the occupiers over centuries. During a meeting with Taliban in Doha, Turkey tried to dissuade the armed group from its position but the latter maintained its position, firmly rejecting the Turkish proposal, and demanded the departure of all foreign forces.

As such, Turkey cannot continue its presence in Afghanistan against Taliban’s will, particularly given that Taliban’s seizing control of the country is the most likely scenario following the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. On ground, Taliban advanced and took control over various regions in the country.

The US and NATO in two minds about Turkey’s proposal: Although the US and NATO have primarily welcomed the Turkish proposal, practical support to the proposal is still pending and hasn’t taken shape yet. And if we assume the approval of the US and the NATO, Turkey’s proposal remains subject to Taliban’s approval. Entering Afghanistan amid the persistent refusal of Taliban will put Turkey in direct confrontation with Taliban, particularly Taliban is within striking distance of power in Afghanistan.     

Rejection of the Turkish opposition: Erdogan’s security proposal was met rejected by Turkey, triggering a decline in the popularity of Erdogan, after nationalist parties accused him of risking the lives of the Turkish citizens in exchange for protecting the Americans and their interests in return for staying in power. 

Opposition of Russia and China: Zamir Kabulov, the Russian President’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, expressed Russia’s rejection of the continued Turkish presence in Afghanistan after the departure of the US, considering it a violation of the agreements concluded with the Taliban.

While Russia and China have concerns about a surge in the jihadist activity in Afghanistan following the US departure and while ensuring their interests are secured plays to their advantage; this, however, does not mean that they turn a blind eye to the fact that Turkey, which is a NATO member, is their first enemy.

In this light, it can be argued that Turkey’s goals in Afghanistan go far beyond what has been publicly declared. Turkey is extending its efforts to revive the neo-Ottomanism dream, expanding to Central Asia, repairing its strained ties with Washington, and proving its integral role in the NATO. However, achieving these goals is not that easy given Taliban’s rejection of the Turkish presence in Afghanistan under the umbrella of the NATO, and the Turkish rejection of Erdogan putting the lives of Turkish soldiers at risk in exchange for protecting the Americans.

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