It is increasingly clear that Turkey has been seeking to expand its role in the war-torn and conflict-ridden Afghanistan by making a concerted effort to step up diplomatic, developmental, and military engagements in the country. The scope and scale of Turkey’s interests in Afghanistan are an expression of the transformation of Turkish foreign policy in recent years. With ambitions for regional leadership, Turkey has been trying to expand its clout through assertive involvement in various neighboring regions. The Afpak region is no exception, with Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives primarily centered on improving bilateral relations between Kabul and Islamabad. Ankara strongly feels that it enjoys distinct advantages over other third-party facilitators in this mediatory role, primary because of a shared Islamic religion, good relations with both countries, and a lack of local favorites in their internal political matters. Although the U.S.-led attack in 2001 against the Taliban regime was not popular in the country, Turkey decided to offer troops to the mission as a NATO member state and has maintained a military presence in Afghanistan since.
Although actively engaged in the training of Afghan security forces and in providing logistical assistance to other international forces, the Turkish military has avoided deploying its troops in direct counter-insurgency operations, despite pressure from Washington, and has only taken part in post-conflict peacebuilding measures in Afghanistan. Former Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin was appointed NATO’s first senior civilian representative in Afghanistan in 2003. Another Turkish diplomat, Ismail Aramaz, served as the alliance’s top civilian representative in 2015 and 2016. Turkey set up its own civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province in November 2006, and a second team was opened at Jowzan in July 2010. Turkey’s aid and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have resulted in the building and renovation of numerous schools and hospitals, the awarding of hundreds of scholarships, and the restoration of roads and bridges.
The Turkish presence in Afghanistan also reflects the historical relationship between Ankara and Kabul that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Through the 1921 Treaty of Friendship, Afghanistan was the second country, after the Soviet Union, to recognize the new Turkish republic, even as Turkey’s war of independence was underway. Afghanistan also adopted a constitution based on Kemal Atatürk’s model. Turkish-Afghan ties remained strong until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Like Islamabad, Ankara opted to become a party to the ‘Afghan jihad’ at the behest of the Western alliance to achieve its own strategic goals.
Although Turkey’s engagement with Afghanistan since 2001 has been conducted in an essentially NATO context, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been eager to distance himself from the U.S.-led war efforts against the Taliban. In fact, the Turkish government has taken the view that reconcilable elements of the Taliban should be brought into the Afghan political mainstream, and that Afghanistan cannot be pacified without enhanced cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Erdogan’s visit to Kabul in 2014 directly following the controversial Afghan presidential elections reaffirmed Ankara’s strategic interests and relatively neutral position toward Afghanistan. During Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s December 2015 visit to Turkey, Erdogan reiterated that “Afghanistan’s problems are our problems, and their success is our success,” while assuring that Turkish troops would stay there as long as Kabul desired. This policy stance can be interpreted with allusion to Turkey’s sense of ‘historic responsibility’ toward Kabul and its role perception as a major regional power.
Turkey keeps a close watch on Afghan political developments, establishing close relations with a number of influential political figures and groups. Turkey is a long-standing patron of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is currently Afghanistan’s vice president. Estranged from Ghani due to a criminal trial at home, Dostum’s recent controversial ‘exile’ or ‘political asylum’ in Turkey was believed to be part of the bargain to dissolve Afghan schools affiliated with the exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen.
Besides being a participant in NATO operations in Afghanistan, Turkey has also mediated the unending Afghan-Pakistani feuds. In this context, Turkey has hosted a number of Afghan-centric conferences, and arranged numerous meetings between Afghan and Pakistani leaders, urging them to resolve their differences on the Durand Line, Afghan refugees, and talks with the Taliban. In a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September 2017, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi and Erdogan reportedly agreed on the revival of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Turkey trilateral process.
In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s major policy announcement on Afghanistan, Pakistan has launched aggressive regional outreach focused on developing consensus on the need for a ‘political solution’ to the Afghan problem, or, we might say, to save its Taliban proxies from American fury. Stung by an exceptionally harsh rebuke by the U.S. president, Pakistan is looking elsewhere for strategic support, and Turkey seems to top that list. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif has held discussions with his counterparts in China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the Afghan question. His high-profile visit to Turkey in the second week of September has been projected as a successful diplomatic venture. Ankara, which already acknowledges the crucial leverage Pakistan could exercise in Afghan domestic affairs, now shares Islamabad’s attitude that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict.
Although Turkey claims neutrality in its relations with Kabul and Islamabad, Ankara’s soft corner towards Pakistan is difficult to hide. Turkey’s good ties with Pakistan date back to their alignment with the American-led Western camp during the Cold War, and their military-to-military exchanges involving a diverse set of bilateral exercises have continued to this day. The Turkey-Pakistan relationship may have prevented Turkish troops from being attacked by the Afghan Taliban, which enjoy safe haven on Pakistani territory. Erdogan recently supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue while on a state visit to India, much to New Delhi’s chagrin.
At this pivotal point in time, Pakistan is now rushing to include Turkey in a regional alliance involving Russia and Iran to counter American influence in solving the Afghan riddle. While previously the Taliban was deadly opposed to both Russia and Iran, there seems to be a new-found bonhomie between them. In recent times, the Turkish government has also increased its contacts with the Taliban leadership because of a common interest in keeping ISIS at bay.
Though the volatile regional geopolitical dynamics have thus far frustrated Turkey’s efforts in convincing the Taliban to enter peace talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Turkey is driven to continue its efforts for other reasons, as well. Erdogan’s increasing focus on Afghanistan is also driven by the hope that a Turkey-brokered peace deal in Afghanistan could help Ankara gain political leverage in NATO. As the Trump administration demonstrates its determination to fight the Taliban, Turkey will likely chart its own course in Afghanistan.