At a time when many countries are leaving Afghanistan, Turkey has been searching for ways to stay. By helping run Kabul airport, Ankara believes it can gain a foothold in Afghanistan, which would in turn help it achieve its broader goals. However, the Afghanistan crisis is becoming increasingly regionalized and Afghanistan’s neighbours are likely to play a more prominent role, while Turkey – devoid of a security role – will at best be a marginal player.
In order for Ankara to leverage Afghanistan for other purposes, it first needs to ensure any role it plays at Kabul airport has a security dimension to it and is not a strictly technical or civilian role, partly because Ankara lacks other sources of influence in the country.
For instance, Qatar plays an important role in the diplomatic space as facilitator, as many countries engage with the Taliban in Doha, but can also provide Afghanistan with both civilian and technical assistance. Turkey also does not share a land or a maritime border with Afghanistan and its potential influence would therefore not be comparable to places like Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh or Libya, where Turkey plays a prominent role.
The Taliban appear to approve of Turkey taking on a role in the running of the airport – along with Qatar – partly to maintain links with international actors and avoid international isolation, but they are also wary of attaching any significant security dimension to it. To overcome the Taliban’s resistance, Turkey appears to be flexible and instead of using its military, it could consider a private security company supported by a limited number of special forces at the airport.
On the political front, Turkey wanted the Taliban to include Turkic figures from minority Uzbek or Turkmen backgrounds in Afghanistan’s new cabinet, as this would have helped the Turkish government’s domestic narrative. However, the Taliban have not met Turkish demands on either the political or security front and, even if the Taliban agree to a limited security role for Turkey, this is unlikely to help Ankara achieve its ambitions.
What is Turkey hoping to achieve?
Ankara wants to use Afghanistan as leverage to improve its relations with the US, gain a source of leverage vis-à-vis Europe – particularly regarding migration – play a role in the eventual reconstruction of Afghanistan and gain a modest foothold in the geopolitics of Central and South Asia.
As such, Turkey’s goals appear to be misplaced. The overarching motivation for Erdogan’s government was to use Afghanistan to repair ties with the Biden administration. Relations between Turkey and the US/the West have been in deep crisis in recent years and the growing tide of authoritarianism in domestic politics and geopolitical decoupling in foreign policy have driven wedges between the two sides. The Erdogan government appeared to have bet on a geopolitical crisis to remind the US of its value and it believed Afghanistan to be the crisis that could help mend ties with the Biden administration.
The situation in Afghanistan has certainly brought a change in the language used in US-Turkey relations. US officials increasingly refer to Turkey as a strategic ally and invaluable partner – something the Biden administration hitherto has avoided. But that is probably as far as it goes. How much Afghanistan will matter for the US a year or two from now is questionable at best. The US is eager to leave the Afghanistan dossier behind, whereas Ankara aspires to use it for non-Afghanistan related purposes in years to come. Thus, there is a notable misalignment in their approach to Afghanistan. The fact that Erdogan returned from a recent US trip to attend the opening of the UNGA without having secured a meeting with Biden is illustrative of how much importance the US attaches to Turkey’s aspirations in Afghanistan.
European governments are concerned about the prospect of new waves of Afghan refugees heading for the continent and would be keen to work with Turkey – a transit country – to stem such a tide. The cooperation on migration and refugees has been one of the most tangible areas of engagement between Turkey and the EU in recent years. However, the prospect and depth of such a cooperation will be very much dependent on the size of refugee flows. Plus, Turkey already hosts the largest number of refugees in the world and additional refugees would undermine the government’s popularity.
As for playing a role in the eventual reconstruction of Afghanistan, any role Turkey could play here would pale in comparison to that of China.
As the US angle of Turkey’s Afghanistan policy is unlikely to pay off as much as the Turkish government hoped, Ankara is now likely to reframe its role around the importance of Afghanistan. In official discourse, the Central Asia/Turkic world dimension of Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan is set to become more pronounced. However, in terms of foreign policy this would be self-defeating as the Taliban are unlikely to approve of such ethnic solidarity language and China and Russia would also frown upon such a discourse. Despite this being a shortsighted narrative, Ankara is likely to go ahead as it would do well with domestic audiences.
In terms of the South Asia dimension, Turkey has well-established cultural, political and commercial links with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a large Afghan diaspora, that predate and will outlast the Taliban.