As the evacuation of Turkish forces have been completed before the Taliban’s deadline of 31 August, the issue of whether Turkey will be responsible to protect the Kabul airport remains unclear. Though Taliban’s spokesman said they would regard such an involvement as a violation against their sovereignty, the question of why Turkey is still interested in undertaking the task is yet to be answered.
After the meeting between Joe Biden and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit, the issue of Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport entered into the Turkish domestic political agenda. While the pro-government media channels mostly presented the mission to be of strategic importance for Turkey, critics from the opposition have questioned whether there could be any gain from sending the Turkish soldiers to such a turbulent region. Since the initial plan was discussed between the two presidents in June, which agreed to a Turkish military presence at the airport under the rule of the prospective Afghan government, lot has changed in this precarious region. Subsequent to the rapid Taliban takeover of the country and its order for the evacuation of all foreign forces, it seemed like the Turkish plan is to be cancelled. However, the government renewed its interest in providing security to the airport and a final decision is yet to be given. Under the current circumstances, the following question is worth investigating: Why Turkey had been interested in undertaking such a responsibility?
There had not been much of an attempt from the government officials to convey the rationale behind the Turkish involvement in Afghanistan into the public debates. For this reason, attempts to analyze this development are mostly based on speculations or anticipations deducted from the limited sources. Nevertheless there are certain prominent arguments that attempt to analyze the logic behind Ankara’s decision. One of these is that Turkey hoped to revive its strained relations with the West. The arrest of pastor Brunson, US refusal to return Fetullah Gulen and finally the CAATSA sanctions on Turkey due to the purchase of S-400 missiles deteriorated the U.S.-Turkish relations. Moreover, Turkey’s progressive turn away from the Western-led liberal democratic system and search for autonomy have also drifted Turkey apart from its former alliances. The Turkish government might have assumed that undertaking such a role would improve U.S-Turkey relations and show NATO that it is a strategically important member. It would also open new channels of dialogue and opportunities for partnership. By being a Muslim majority NATO member state, Turkey would hold a special place that is able to mediate between Taliban and the Western states. This would make Turkey a strategically important player. Secondly, it is argued that Turkey aspires to be an influential regional power in the post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan . The government might be aiming to increase its role in the region through technical and security assistance, construction projects and education.
To evaluate these possible reasons, first, though it may at the first sight seem like providing security to the airport may increase Turkey’s strategic importance, the mission is too risky. Whether Afghanistan will be a stable and a safe region will be dependent on Taliban’s decisions on allowing or preventing terrorism and extremism to flourish within its territories. On rational terms, being a nest for the terrorist groups would be against Taliban’s interest. It would want to attract foreign investment and engage in political dialogues with the rest of the world. However, recent attacks in the airport by two suicide bombers and gunmen show that Taliban is currently in no control to prevent terrorism within its own territories. In a region that is inherently host to terrorism, foreign military presence is dangerous. Turkey’s role under NATO from 2015 in the Kabul airport had been non-combatant. If these attacks had occurred during Turkey’s presence at the airport, then this would necessitate a military response. However, this would drag Turkey into a terrorism mesh. Such a situation would also damage the Turkish public opinion. Moreover, proving its strategic importance through security missions is not a sustainable foreign policy instrument.
In the first term of the AKP regime, the government showed a great effort for the EU accession process which improved the country’s economic and democratic conditions. This era had increased Turkey’s partnership opportunities with liberal democracies. The regime was dedicated to taking part as an important player in the Western-led system by being a committed NATO member and a like-minded ally. However, within the last decade, the foreign policy strategy of Turkey has changed drastically. It no longer aspires to commit to EU values and chose one side of the camp by being dedicated solely to the EU and the U.S. Rather; it increased cooperation with powers like Russia and China and enhanced its autonomous role in the Middle East. However, having poor relations with the West has repercussions on Turkish politics and economy. Cooperation is still very important though Turkey has pursued autonomy in its foreign policy. Collaboration without committing to execute Western-style democracy in its domestic politics is an opportunity for the Turkish government. One example of this kind of a foreign policy is the EU-Turkish migration deal. The agreement allows Turkey to have a bargaining power against the EU and creates a chance for partnership and dialogue. In the case of Afghanistan, again, the government might be targeting to enhance its bargaining position by undertaking this risky job. Nevertheless, this kind of a foreign policy strategy is both costly and unsustainable.
Secondly, Turkey aiming to be an influential regional power in the post-conflict Afghanistan might be one of the reasons behind the airport mission. However, Turkey’s contribution to the region can be done without a military engagement. Thus, regardless of the airport mission, Turkey’s capacity for engagement would be limited. The main actors that would take major development projects would be China and to some extent, Russia. Turkey can still take projects in the post-conflict region but these would mostly be confined with middle-ranged construction projects. Turkey had shared historical ties with Afghanistan since the 20th century. After 2001, it had been influential in the region through NATO missions. It now shares a rather special relation with the Taliban regime due to the religious ties. Turkey could smartly use its historical and religious bond in its foreign policy with the Taliban to have a regional influence in the country. Most importantly, it is clear that the Taliban is not interested in hosting Turkey in the airport. If Turkey insists in that, then, the relations with the Taliban would suffer. For now, it seems like the Taliban is asking for a technical assistance on how to run the airport. Turkey should confine its role with providing assistance and know-how.
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About The Author
Aslinur is currently an International Politics Master’s student at KU Leuven. Prior to that, she studied International Relations at Bilkent University and completed her undergraduate degree with a focus on International Security Studies.She has done internships in think tanks such as Middle East Political and Economic Institue and Turkish International Relations Association and studied international security, current developments in the Middle East, and EU security policies. She had also been engaged in NGOs focusing on migration and human rights both as a researcher and a volunteer. She intends to pursue a Ph.D. and continue her studies as a scholar in International Relations. She is an intern at the Lobo Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and podcasts, please go to Lobo Institute.