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A Turkish Policy Shift towards the Taliban?

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - AUGUST 22: 357 passengers, evacuated from Afghanistan' s capital Kabul, arrive to Istanbul, on August 22, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey. 357 more passengers, 16 of whom were infants, arrived to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines flight. ( İsa Terli - Anadolu Agency )
357 passengers, evacuated from Afghanistan' s capital Kabul, arrive to Istanbul, on August 22, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey. 357 more passengers, 16 of whom were infants, arrived to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines flight. [İsa Terli - Anadolu Agency]

Although many leaders of the ruling Turkish party (AKP) are never tired of reiterating that their party is not an Islamic party but a conservative one, many out of their good will or otherwise, tend to brand it as such which, frequently, makes their policies seem ambiguous or contradictory. One of these issues is the stance of the Turkish government on Afghanistan.

During the Kabul pro-American government period, it was evident that Turkey felt closer to Kabul than it was to the Taliban, who are presumably more "Islamic". This stance has seemingly many reasons: first, the Kabul government was close to the United States, Turkey's partner in NATO. Second, the Kabul government enjoys international recognition while many countries consider the Taliban a terrorist organisation, and have never recognised its government when it was in power. Another reason is that the Taliban's version of Islam is seen by many Muslims as out of date, even backward, and does not correspond with the overwhelmingly adopted version of Islam in the Muslim world, especially in Turkey.

Finally, it was clear that the nationalist position has an immense impact on Turkey's foreign policy towards Afghanistan, which should not come as a surprise in a country like Turkey. Although Turkey enjoys considerable popularity among Afghanistan's people for historical and cultural reasons, Turkish policy makers chose to support more those Afghans who descend from a Turkic background, like the Uzbeks and Turkmens who represent small minorities, instead of being neutral with all the tribes.

Historical Background

No doubt, Turkey enjoys long relations with Afghanistan. In current times, Turkey helped with building up the modern Afghan army and has trained many doctors and teachers, signed agreements of alliance and cooperation. Turkey has always worked with the Afghan government, even under the communist party, and tried to achieve reconciliation among Mujahedeen factions between 1993-1996. Even when Turkey sent troops to Afghanistan under NATO, it did not participate in battle.

One of the issues which was highly debated in Turkish and Arab media was the Turkish offer at the NATO summit in June 2021, to secure and run the Kabul airport after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was immediately rejected by the Taliban who declared that any Turkish presence in Afghanistan should not be a military one, especially under NATO and, if that would happen, then it would harm the brotherly relations between the Afghan and Turkish people. The Taliban's refusal has put the Turkish government, which was trying to improve its relations with the Biden administration by playing this card, in a difficult position.

While Turkey was working on finding a way to convince the Taliban, the movement rapidly expanded its military presence by occupying more land from the hands of Kabul's military forces. This angered the Turkish leadership to the extent that President Erdogan demanded that the Taliban stop acting as if it is a foreign occupation force, saying that they should "end the occupation of their brothers' soil".

READ: Russia, Turkey to discuss developments in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan 

The looming crisis between the Turkish government and the Taliban was soon overcome by new realities, when the Taliban entered Kabul and President Ghani fled the country. The Taliban assumed power and immediately asked for Turkey's help to run the airport and rebuild the country, describing Turkey as one of its major partners. This corresponds with Turkish ambitions to have more influence in central Asia and boost its own growing economy. The Turkish government immediately seized the opportunity.

Apart from pursuing Turkey's interests in Afghanistan, the government was under heavy criticism from the Opposition because of the Afghan refugee influx into the country. Local media reported that about 300,000 Afghan refugees temporarily reside on Turkish soil, awaiting a chance to be illegally trafficked to Europe. Their presence in Turkey has added to the 4 million Syrian refugees, burdens the infrastructure and represents real economic and security challenges. The solution to this problem, according to government officials, is to stop refugees from the source, not just by imposing more restrictions on foreigners. To do this, Turkey should help Afghanistan to become a country that could provide a secure and prosperous life to its citizens, and that could be a win-win game for Turkey, as well.

Stability in Afghanistan

Stability seems to be the magic word in Afghanistan. Turkey, like most of Afghanistan's neighbours, does not want to repeat the 1996-2001 experience, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The international strategy to isolate the Taliban back then, headed by the Americans, led to a catastrophe in every sense. Perhaps a different strategy should be applied this time, which should basically be: changing the behaviour of the Taliban, not the Taliban itself. This seems to work better, up to now. The Taliban declared their commitment to an inclusive government, women's rights and fighting terrorist groups. From experience and friends' advice, such as Pakistan and Qatar, the Taliban seems to realise that if they want to rule Afghanistan, then they need international recognition and, therefore, they must comply with international demands.

While Turkey knows perfectly well that advancing in Afghanistan is a risky and long process, they are trying to balance their moves carefully. Turkey has helped in operating Kabul airport but seems to be reluctant to recognise the newly formed interim government. It has pinned their recognition on the formation of an inclusive government, unlike Pakistan and Qatar, who seem to be more positive in this regard. The Turkish also know that their American partners would not object to their anticipated role in Afghanistan. On the contrary, Americans may encourage Turkey to play a mediating role between NATO and the Taliban, and fill in the vacuum they left behind, instead of leaving the country for Iran and China.

Many security and economic challenges await the Taliban government ahead but, if they able to play skilfully, they will make it easier for their allies and partners to engage in building the country and achieving prosperity, Turkey is certainly not an exception.

READ: After Afghanistan withdrawal, US faces distrust from its allies

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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