Turkey’s Strategic Role in Afghanistan and Taliban’s Good Policy Move

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meeting with Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Ankara

This year is the centennial of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Afghanistan. Diplomatic and political relations between Turkey and Afghanistan were established by the Turkey-Afghanistan Alliance Agreement signed on March 1, 1921. On the other hand, the relations between the peoples of the two countries, whose relations were officialized with this agreement, go back much further in time.

The material and moral support of the Afghan people to Turkey during the Turkish War of Liberation is still being remembered. Afghan people sent aid during the war, and Afghan students studying in Anatolia were martyred while participating in the War of Liberation.

With the Turkish-Afghan Friendship and Cooperation Treaty signed in 1921, Afghanistan became the second state to recognize the Turkish Grand National Assembly and the National Oath of 1920. The Ankara Government opened its second foreign representation in Kabul, after Baku. A Turkish officer of Afghan origin Abdurrahman Samadan was appointed as the first Turkish representative to Afghanistan, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul was the first diplomatic mission inaugurated in Kabul.

In 1927, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan Mahmut Tarzi came to Ankara and held talks. After this visit, the King of Afghanistan Amanullah Khan came to Ankara and met with Atatürk. During his visit, he said: “I have two eyes: one in Afghanistan, the other is Turkey” and thus expressed the place of the Turkish-Afghan friendship in his heart. It is known that Amanullah Khan has taken the example of Turkey in the modernization process of Afghanistan. In this regard, on May 25, 1928, the “Friendship and Cooperation Treaty between Turkey and Afghanistan” that included the principles of peace, sincerity, and eternal friendship was signed, it was decided to act jointly if any hostile action took place against either party. With this treaty, the Republic of Turkey declared its commitment to selecting legal, scientific, and military experts to provide the service for the development of Afghanistan’s education system and military.

Thus, the development of relations with the Turkish-Afghan cooperation in civil and military fields was carried out, and many doctors and officers from Turkey took part in the modernization process of the institutions in Afghanistan. Teacher officers from Turkey were sent to the Military Officers School that was opened in Kabul. Prof. Dr. Kamil Urga from Turkey laid the foundations of the Kabul Medical School and served Afghanistan for 17 years. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Ali Dağpınar, who was appointed to Kabul in 1936 as legal counsel, took part in the establishment of the Faculty of Political Sciences in Kabul in 1938. When Atatürk passed away in 1938, Afghanistan officially declared a week of mourning by lowering its flags to half-mast.

This cooperation has continued from the establishment of Turkish-Afghan relations until today, and during the period 1932-1960, 212 teachers, physicians, officers, and other experts were sent to Afghanistan. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) has carried out more than 1300 projects and activities throughout Afghanistan, including primarily the health and education sector, social and cultural activities. More than four thousand Afghan students have completed their education with scholarships from Turkey’s Turkish Universities. It is known that there are many high-ranking Afghan states officials and ambassadors who graduated from Turkish universities. This situation has contributed to the consolidation of the Turkish-Afghan friendship. For example, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who served as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan between 2006-2010, is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University.

On the occasion of the centennial of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Afghanistan, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended via video conference the ceremony held in Kabul hosted under the auspices of the ex-Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanif Atmar. Minister Çavuşoğlu expressed that spruce saplings were planted in the garden of the Turkish Ministry by him and ex-Ambassador Amir Ramin of Afghanistan, to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and he said that “As you know, spruce trees are green for four seasons. Just like spruce trees, the friendship between our countries will last forever as well.”

The development of Turkish-Afghan relations continues with steps by the Republic of Turkey to reach different parts of Afghanistan. The second Turkish consulate general was opened in Herat in June 2020, and preparations are underway to open a third consulate general in Kandahar this year.

Today that means that Afghanistan moved into crisis and chaos due to American occupation because there are no stability, unity, and security in Afghanistan.

How did this instability affect Turkey’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan? Firstly, we should know that the instability of Afghanistan is a threat for Turkey because this instability causes that Afghani people flee from infighting to Turkey. That means a refugee problem for Turkey as we observe today after the withdrawal decision of the USA. Also, terrorism, instability in the region, economic effects on trade of the instability are other threats for Turkey.

What did Turkey do in order to tackle the threats so far? Turkey aims to provide the unity and integrity of Afghanistan; eliminate terrorism and extremism from Afghanistan; provide security and stability in Afghanistan (Turkey-Afghanistan Bilateral Political Relations). Therefore, Turkey strives to contribute to the reunifying and stability of Afghanistan through assistance programs and diplomatic attempts. For example, Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Process leading by Turkey was launched in 2007 (Turkey-Afghanistan Bilateral Political Relations). Moreover, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process was initiated in 2011 (Turkey-Afghanistan Bilateral Political Relations). Hence, several summits have been carried out by the high-ranking state officials of Afghanistan and Turkey so far. For instance, the President of Turkey H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to Afghanistan on 18 October 2014. This visit was an important development for Turkey-Afghanistan relations because this visit was the first visit after 46 years at the presidential level (Turkey-Afghanistan Bilateral Political Relations). Hence, we can say that Turkey-Afghanistan relations have developed day by day.

Afghanistan Crisis offers a New Strategic Opportunity for Erdogan

Despite the risk of isolation causing problems for Erdogan, the crisis in Afghanistan adds a new regional dynamic where Ankara may acquire leverage.

Amid the chaos of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, regional players including Turkey have been jostling to position themselves with the new regime and take advantage of the benefits from the vacuum left by the United States and NATO. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that he is open to cooperation with the Taliban regime, despite criticisms of the Taliban previously.

Turkey is no stranger to the Afghanistan conflict, having been involved in NATO operations since 2001. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, also has had a solid relationship with Afghanistan’s previous governments while building stronger regional relations with Pakistan and Iran to navigate Afghani affairs.

As the US and NATO withdrew from Afghanistan, Turkey was primed to take control of the security of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The quick fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban left this proposal in doubt, however. The Taliban have offered Turkey the opportunity to provide logistical support to Kabul airport, with the Taliban maintaining the airport’s security.

The Taliban’s outreach by sending its Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi to Turkey is being seen as an attempt to stop the new regime from becoming isolated and sanctioned by the international community. Having control of the airport could open economic relations with the Taliban for Turkey and allow cheap Turkish goods to flood the Afghan market while providing opportunities for AKP aligned Turkish construction firms to rebuild the war-torn country. Controlling the airport allows Turkey to regulate what comes in and out of Afghanistan in terms of aid. It may also provide a leverage point to bring it back into the Biden administration’s good graces.

Being the last NATO member in Afghanistan and a key point of communication between the Taliban and the West could provide Turkey with the regional mediating role it has long aspired to. But it may mean Turkey is one of the only NATO members to recognize the Taliban regime.

Turkish foreign policymakers have a history of pie in the sky thinking where rhetoric never meets the reality on the ground. The move to engage with the Taliban is hazardous ­– even more so if Turkey recognizes the Taliban government.

The recent Islamic State attack that killed at least 110 people and 13 US troops, however, demonstrates that the Taliban is not yet in complete control of the airport to provide the security Turkey needs. Erdogan can ill afford a massacre of Turkish forces on his watch, given the politics at home and continued adventurism by the Turkish military in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Turkish private security contractors or Syrian aligned rebel forces with ties to Turkey used in previous conflicts such as in Azerbaijan and Libya as part of the AKP’s frontline military strategy could provide an avenue in which Turkey can maintain a presence in Afghanistan without political and military cost.

Many structural issues will probably impede Turkey’s ambitious role in Afghanistan. First, Erdogan will need to contend with an expected rush of Afghan refugees heading towards Turkey’s eastern border. Domestically, nationalist fever and anti-immigrant tension have been running high towards the Syrian refugee population. Foreign policy adventurism has been a great tool to distract from domestic failings, but its efficacy is waning as domestic challenges continue.

Combined with a spiraling economic situation and many policy failures relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent bush fires in southern Turkey, it is unlikely that Erdogan can afford another risky foreign policy blunder whereas, for Taliban government engagements with Turkey and its leadership will be a win-win situation.

While Turkey has strengthened its borders and refugee policy towards the incoming Afghan refugees, the European Union is also pressuring Turkey with monetary incentives to contain any rush of refugees to European borders.

Turkey’s pursuit of a stabilizing and mediating role in Afghanistan appears to be another pipe dream – the risks by far out way the benefits.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he viewed messages from Taliban leaders with “cautious optimism”. He added that he would “not get permission from anyone” about who to talk to when asked about criticism over contact with the group.

“This is diplomacy,” he said during a press conference.

He added: “Turkey is ready to lend all kinds of support for Afghanistan’s unity but will follow a very cautious path.”

The international community has yet to decide how to deal with the new Taliban regime and should view Turkey’s pursuit of relations with the Taliban with caution. Turkey may find itself dragged into a costly military engagement and isolated once again for the sake of economic opportunities and trying to bring itself into the good graces of allies and friends it has previously cast aside.

Nonetheless, the crisis in Afghanistan has forced a geopolitical recalculation that heightens Turkey’s strategic regional importance. The continuation of a Turkish diplomatic presence in Afghanistan means that it would be in EU and US interests to work with Ankara to stabilize the region.

Despite the purchase of an S-400 missile system from Russia remaining a source of tension in US-Turkey relations, Washington may welcome Turkey’s stabilizing role in Afghanistan. Moreover, Turkish coordination of efforts on the crisis with Pakistan means that Ankara plays a key role in responding to Chinese influence in Central Asia. The EU, for its part, views the involvement of third countries, primarily Turkey, as key to regional security.

As for the Gulf states, the challenge Iran poses in Afghanistan means that Turkey is well-placed to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite the risk of further isolation as a result of Turkish engagement with the Taliban, the current political environment in the region favors a reset. The end to the blockade on Qatar removes a key barrier to rebuilding Turkish-Saudi relations. Riyadh’s ally, Egypt, has also expressed a willingness to reach a compromise with Turkey over gas quotas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lastly, in the summer, the UAE made moves to re-engage with Turkey after its economy took a hit as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The question is whether Erdogan can build on these efforts to normalize relations with the West and the Gulf. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, the Turkish president is in a strong position to do so.

AISSC believes dealing with the Taliban provides President Erdogan with an opportunity.

“To make their grip on power sustainable, the Taliban need international aid and investment to go on. The Taliban are not even able to pay for the salaries of their government employees today.”

Turkey may try to position itself as “guarantor, mediator, facilitator” – as a more trusted intermediary than Russia or China – who have kept their embassies open in Kabul.

“Turkey can serve that role.”

Many countries have attempted to maintain some form of contact with the Taliban since its take-over of Kabul, particularly through the Doha channel. But Turkey is among those in a stronger position to develop ties on the ground; albeit a situation that is full of risk.


AISSC also believes further ties in Afghanistan allow President Erdogan to “broaden the chessboard” of his foreign policy and play to his AK Party’s support base.

“They consider Turkey as a country with a manifest destiny – an exceptional position within the Muslim world. It is based on Turkey’s past and its Ottoman heritage as the seat of the caliphate.”

For now, with a deeply uncertain situation for the people of Afghanistan, Turkey is among those talking to the Taliban for many in the outside world; while China and Russia also compete for future access in Kabul.

Written by Hon’ Executive Board Member of AISSC – Syed Shah Fahad Hussain

AISSC reserves all the rights for reprinting & republishing

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