Turkey’s Relentless Bid for Afghanistan

The Taliban’s astonishing seizure of all of Afghanistan dashed the Turkish government’s earlier hope to take charge of Kabul Airport. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan welcomed the Taliban’s messages of moderation and renewed offers to secure the presence of Turkish troops in the country for the long term. The Taliban’s decline of the offer, however, led Ankara to evacuate Turkish troops and consider providing logistical and technical support to run the airport. Following Turkish officials’ first direct meeting with the Taliban, Erdoğan expressed Turkey’s desire for further engagement on the path forward. Ankara still demands a Turkish security presence through private firms. In Erdoğan’s words, “any kind of cooperation” with the new leaders of Afghanistan “regardless of who is in power” summarizes the strategic route for Ankara.

Behind Turkey’s relentless bid is the perception of Afghanistan as a potential bargaining chip in Ankara’s relationship with the Biden Administration, which is grappling with an unexpected domestic public relations debacle.

Behind Turkey’s relentless bid is the perception of Afghanistan as a potential bargaining chip in Ankara’s relationship with the Biden Administration, which is grappling with an unexpected domestic public relations debacle. The Turkish government believes that any critical role in helping the new regime in Kabul will be beneficial, regardless of whether that will be aligned with NATO’s interests. Erdoğan reasons that if the Afghanistan file cannot be used to gain Washington’s favor, then such an asset may be offered as a bargaining chip to receive concessions on other contentious issues in US-Turkish relations.

Dramatic Loss of the Afghanistan Deal in Ankara-Washington Relations

Despite the earlier war of words with Erdoğan during his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden has chosen a calm policy toward Ankara. One of the key causes for this choice was the deal over Afghanistan’s future security. The Biden-Erdoğan meeting during NATO’s June 2021 summit did not lead to any resolution to the Russian S-400 missile crisis or other major issues of contention. Yet, a rather fringe agenda item was highlighted as a hope for future cooperation: Turkey accepted the task to run Kabul Airport after NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the months that followed, Washington did not pay attention to worsening human rights issues in Turkey, including the government’s legal pressure to close the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, the People’s Democratic Party, and violent attacks on party representatives. Nor did Washington seriously condemn Turkey’s increasing attacks in northern Syria in violation of a US-brokered cease-fire, recent killings of US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces members, and renewed air strikes on Iraq’s Yezidi-populated Sinjar region. Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken touted Turkey as “an important NATO ally and an invaluable partner in the region.”

A few months ago, the Biden Administration asked Ankara to host high-level peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Washington, however, was quick to realize that the Turkish government wanted to use this role as leverage in advancing other contentious matters—including S-400 negotiations. Thus, the Biden team did not pursue the demand further. It is evident that Washington aims to engage with Ankara, believing that Turkey is bigger than the Erdoğan regime, and hence, long-term strategic cooperation is still plausible and valuable. Nonetheless, given congressional pressure, the White House does not want to give in to Turkish demands on critical security matters.

With many unknowns and evolving conditions, Turkey’s cooperation in Afghanistan may open a window of opportunity for the Erdoğan government in redressing the troubled relationship with Washington. Turkey has become a significant center of interest to leaders of NATO member states due to the need for offshore asylum centers to rescue eligible Afghans for resettlement into their countries. On the other hand, Turkey’s unilateral goals in Afghanistan may not be seen favorably from Washington’s point of view: the Turkish government’s Islamist leanings cause skepticism about Ankara’s intentions.

Turkish Support for the Taliban’s Legitimacy

Although Erdoğan requested a personal meeting with the Taliban leadership, his demand was not accepted as the group wants to meet with him “under the right circumstances,” from an advantageous position. Erdoğan has faced domestic criticism following his statement that the Taliban should be more open to dialogue with Ankara because “Turkey doesn’t have anything that contradicts their beliefs.” His remarks were not a Freudian slip; indeed, the Turkish government believes that Turkey’s unique position as the only Muslim-majority NATO member has always been a great asset in Afghanistan. Turkish forces have assumed noncombatant roles solely and have built strong ties with the wider Afghan community across tribal networks. For those who blame Erdoğan for harboring ideological affinity with the Taliban, however, there is more in the picture. The Turkish president’s ties with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—an influential Islamist figure and former prime minister ousted by the Taliban in 1996—go back to the Cold War years when Hekmatyar was a mujahideen leader who garnered public celebrations in Istanbul, thanks to young Erdoğan’s organizing efforts.

Turkey believes that it can play a major role in the Taliban’s quest for international legitimacy and official recognition.

Turkey believes that it can play a major role in the Taliban’s quest for international legitimacy and official recognition. Suggesting the example of Turkey’s involvement in Libya, Erdoğan tried to convince the Taliban that continued Turkish military presence in Afghanistan would smooth the way for international recognition of the new government. Despite the Taliban’s decline of the offer, Turkey’s prospective opportunity to operate the Kabul Airport with technical support could have offered some benefits—especially if it is combined with private Turkish security firm involvement. SADAT, Turkey’s first and only private defense firm, has close links to Erdoğan and played key roles in Africa, including in Libya. In return, the Turkish government may offer support for the Taliban’s image around the globe.

Turkey also believes that it should be an active player in shaping the new government. Although the Turkish government’s influence over the Taliban is limited, Ankara may benefit from an outcome that favors moderate Taliban leaders over radical ones. Given that a moderate Taliban government will be seeking recognition from the West, Turkey’s mediation role will be more influential. Ankara appreciated the Taliban’s initial declarations not only for being moderate in tone but also for seeking cooperation and assistance from Turkey, which the Taliban described as “great Islamic brother country.” Further, in boosting the legitimacy of the Taliban and engaging the group with the rest of the world, Turkey will likely use its close relations with Qatar and Pakistan. Qatar has played a skillful role in hosting Afghan peace negotiations in the past decade, and Pakistan’s sway over the Taliban is well-documented. Thus, Ankara’s warm relations with Doha and Islamabad may help Turkey gain more political influence over the Taliban.

Could Turkey Deliver on the Refugee Crisis?

Although the Turkish government perceives an opportunity to restore its relations with NATO allies, Erdoğan is facing a challenge on the domestic front. With thousands of Afghans streaming into Turkey, opposition parties are heaping criticism over refugee management problems. Their argument is that in his bilateral meeting, Erdoğan negotiated with Biden from a weak position and aimed to use the Afghanistan deal for his regime’s benefit—at the expense of Turkish democracy. The critics also blame the government for seeking an unwarranted role in Afghanistan, hence risking the lives of Turkish citizens.

Although the Turkish government perceives an opportunity to restore its relations with NATO allies, Erdoğan is facing a challenge on the domestic front.

The Turkish public has consumed the Afghanistan debate through the prism of the refugee crisis. Videos of Afghan men pouring into Turkey were utilized to criticize the government’s refugee policies, with the accusations that Erdoğan had given secret promises to Biden for making Turkey a transit route and a third country asylum hub for Afghan refugees. Such nationalist rhetoric ignited the debate about all refugees once again, particularly the four million Syrians within the country. Riots erupted, intimidating Syrian refugees and attacking their houses and shops. With the downward trend of the Turkish economy, scapegoating refugees has become a common thread across all political spectrums.

Estimated to number about 500,000, Afghan nationals are the largest refugee group after the Syrians. Mostly young and male, they also face deportation in large numbers—reaching a cumulative half a million in the past five years. As the issue gets more politicized, the opposition parties hit the government hard, recently launching campaigns with banners that say, “The border is namus” (our pride). Often understood as a feminine sexual virtue or chastity, the word namus has strong connotations; thus, violating the borders is equated with rape of the Turkish nation. Such patriarchal and sexualized language strikes at the nerve of an increasingly nationalist Turkish government that fears losing its electorate.

To alleviate mass concerns, the government openly criticized the US program to offer potential resettlement of Afghans through third countries and claimed that Washington included Turkey in this list without consulting Ankara. Erdoğan promised to build new walls across the Iranian border. The Turkish government reinforced security patrols, barbed wire, and surveillance drones to block the refugee influx. Given that 30,000 Afghans leave their country every week, Ankara has become the center of attention by European leaders once again: most Afghan refugees fix their eyes on reaching Europe via Turkey, reflecting migration trends in recent years. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who led the European Union’s deal with Erdoğan over Syrian refugees, suggested more cooperation with the Turkish government in handling the Afghan refugee crisis. Despite his outright rejection of making Turkey “Europe’s refugee warehouse,” Erdoğan called for European leaders’ help in taking responsibility for the looming wave from Afghanistan. Thus, it is most likely that hard Turkey-EU negotiations are in the offing, which will have implications for the United States as well.

Will Washington Perceive Turkey’s Role Favorably?

The Biden Administration’s original plan to get Turkey’s help in securing the airport was a gesture of goodwill and was an opening for seeking constructive dialogue that could stop further deterioration of US-Turkey relations. Yet, the White House was most cautious about the limits of this engagement, signaling that cooperation in Afghanistan could not lead to concessions on US demands about the S-400 missile systems or removal of current sanctions on Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries, following the passing of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Turkey’s help in securing the airport in the name of NATO could also have been a win for Washington. The new reality on the ground, however, offers a different calculation for the Biden Administration as Turkey’s military presence is no longer perceived as a necessity.

Ankara may still want to sell the Turkish role as helping to moderate the Taliban and make constructive bridges between Washington and Kabul; and yet, such brokering may well be conducted by Washington’s Gulf Arab partners if there is a true motivation on the Taliban side. Thus, perceiving Turkey as a risky player and an increasingly unreliable partner, the Biden team is likely to pursue a path that was taken by the Trump Administration: to find alternatives to Turkey in transactional deals and work with the pro-status quo regimes in the Gulf. There is already a strong indication that three countries there—Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—will recognize the Taliban and seek official engagement.

It is most critical to understand how Turkey-US relations also shape how Ankara evaluates its strategic calculations about US partners in the region.

In this regard, it is most critical to understand how Turkey-US relations also shape how Ankara evaluates its strategic calculations about US partners in the region. The Biden Administration’s impact on Turkish foreign policy is most visible in Ankara’s warm messages to its regional rivals. Turkey has sought to thaw its strained relations with Egypt, retracted its ambitious bid in Libya, decreased tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia, and most recently, declared a new era with the UAE. Although Erdoğan’s efforts to mend fences with Egypt and its Gulf allies have not yet materialized substantially, Turkey signals a clear message for a strategic shift. The new rapprochement was prompted by Ankara’s growing marginalization and its subsequent impact on the Turkish economy. For Erdoğan, ushering new Gulf investments into Turkey is more critical than ever. More importantly, however, Turkey’s geostrategic calculus to win Washington’s favor plays a key role in these decisions.

Ankara seems to be aware that the Biden Administration will carry sticks if Turkey reinvigorates ambitious policies that disturb its regional rivals. That is why Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan is likely to be limited and confined. Still, the Turkish government will be content to see the issue as an additional arena for negotiation with Washington—understanding that evolving conditions in Afghanistan will continue to restrain Washington from heavy-handed policies against Ankara.