Turkey mulling playing a role in Afghanistan

Turkey mulling playing a role in Afghanistan

Taliban’s lightning advance and takeover of Afghanistan over the weekend and the escape of President Ashraf Ghani marks the beginning of a new era in the war-torn Central Asian country. The past three days since the takeover, have observed that prominent Western and NATO countries and other regional powers are trying to shape their policies in line with their interests. When the evacuations of the foreigners from Afghanistan will be complete and the Taliban decide the composition of the new government, then these efforts will intensify and materialize.

From the Turkish perspective, it’s surely upsetting to see that two-decade-long efforts to build a functioning state with a certain economic and democratic development level have failed. Turkey has been an active part of the NATO missions in the past 20 years but differently from other allies, it has also sought to contribute to the social and economic development of the country because of a special relationship between the two countries.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, at a press conference in Jordan on Aug. 17, vowed that Turkey’s contribution to the stability, peace and economic development of Afghanistan would continue, meaning Ankara’s willingness to engage with the Taliban. He also stressed that Turkey keeps up a dialogue with all sides, including the Taliban. This is the acknowledgment that a new era in Afghanistan has begun and the main player will be the Taliban.

As is known, Turkey has been in close cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan since the Biden administration took office. The two countries had discussed hosting the Istanbul Conference, where the Taliban and Afghan government would agree, and shaping an agreement for the continuation of Turkey’s military presence to keep the international airport in Kabul open and operational. Both failed.

The messages given by Turkey show that the Turkish government is still interested in bearing the responsibility of running the airport. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, in an interview with the Sabah newspaper, underlined the importance of the airport for all Afghanistan, stressing, “We want it to operate. If you [Taliban] want, we say. If you don’t want, we will leave from there in 24 hours. We want to cooperate with Pakistan in this regard.”

Following Akar’s visit to Islamabad last week, Pakistan President Arif Alvi paid a visit to Istanbul where he had talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mainly on the recent developments in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has a unique relationship with Afghanistan, and it has a strong dialogue with the Taliban. Turkey is also in close dialogue with Qatar, a long-term mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These three countries can develop a new mechanism to engage with the Taliban and, seemingly, that can include Turkey’s continued role in operating the airport, in case the Taliban find it beneficial for themselves, too.

Such a role could have a positive impact on Turkey’s relations with the West, especially the United States. Being in dialogue with the Taliban and operating the airport definitely increases the importance of Turkey in the Afghanistan equation.

For Europe, cooperation with Turkey concerning stemming a new refugee influx from Afghanistan seems more vital. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement to this end is a clear manifestation of this.

For sure, it’s too early to discuss all these scenarios. Firstly, as Çavuşoğlu said, the Taliban and other Afghan leaders should decide what kind of a government they will shape. Secondly, it is necessary to see what kind of governmental mentality the Taliban will adopt and whether they will apply the heavy sharia rules as they did 25 years ago. Many argue that the Taliban will need to be moderate and avoid harsh treatment against its nationals if it wants recognition. And thirdly, will the Taliban become a security and terror problem for the region and the world again, and will it harbor the world’s worst terror organizations and allow them to plan and execute terrorist acts against other countries?

All these items and the answers to these questions will be of vital importance in terms of determining the scope and content of the role that Turkey will play in the future.

Serkan Demirtaş,