What is Turkey’s long game in Afghanistan?

Now that the United States has completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Turkey is among the regional players scrambling to understand the new geopolitical landscape.

Whatever concerns Ankara may have about instability in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, it also sees room for political manoeuvre as part of a long game with strategic benefits, Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington D.C, told Ahval in a podcast.

The current vacuum in Afghanistan also means Washington is looking for ways to maintain some access to the country. To that end, Turkey is ready to lend its assistance, Bokhari said.

Before the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15, Turkey and the United States were in discussions about a proposal by Turkey to run and maintain security at the international airport in Kabul. The Taliban vehemently opposed any continued Turkish military presence in part because they viewed it with suspicion. To the Taliban, says Bokhari, an undertaking by Turkey to remain in the country was seen as a veiled attempt by Washington to also maintain a foothold.

However, as the U.S. withdrawal continued, the Taliban changed tone and said they would be happy to get Turkish assistance at the airport, but without its military forces. This about face reflects a new reality for the Taliban, especially because of its hopes in gaining more international recognition and its dire need for economic assistance, Bokhari said. The Taliban “cannot afford to say “No” to Turkey’s offers, he said.

In Turkey, Afghanistan is a sensitive topic. Fears of Afghan refugees making their way to Turkey and weariness of foreign interventions have driven another political wedge between the Turkish opposition and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. For those in the opposition, particularly the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has recently embraced anti-migrant rhetoric against Erdogan, there is nothing to gain for Turkey by staying in Afghanistan.

Bokhari disagrees. He said an influx of Afghan refugees will not happen immediately because there is no direct border with Turkey as was the case with Syria. Rather, Afghanistan represents an opportunity for Turkey to extend influence in a region where it long struggled to stamp its presence.

“Turkey wants to access Central Asia in the long-run,” said Bokhari. “Afghanistan represents for them a launching point.”

But before Turkey can begin to move in this direction, Afghanistan needs to be stabilised. The Taliban are negotiating with Afghan officials from other factions about the makeup of a new government. There also remains the question of a resistance movement against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley where rebels rally around the flag of the National Liberation Front, led by former vice president Amrullah Saleh and local warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Bokhari notes that Turkey does not have the level of closeness that some countries have with the Taliban, but they make up for it by bringing their own set of ideological and diplomatic advantages.

The Taliban are a movement that sits on the extreme end of Sunni Islamism. Like Qatar, a strong Turkish ally and an interlocutor for the Taliban to the rest of the world, Turkey under Erdogan has been a prominent supporter of Islamist politics. In a speech in July, Erdogan remarked that Turkey took “no issue” with the Taliban’s ideology.

Bokhari says this statement was the Turkish leader’s way of “wooing” the Taliban into dropping its suspicions. He said that Erdogan, who has been in power for close to two decades, is a model for a successful Islamist which could be attractive to the Taliban to learn from if it is sincere about moderating its earned reputation for brutality.

Unlike Qatar, Turkey also has a diplomatic card of its own to play; a connection to Europe.

The European Union has been addressing anxiety within its own ranks over a possible influx of Afghan refugees. Since Kabul fell, its leaders have spoken of the role Turkey could play in managing any migrant flows towards Europe. But Erdogan has said he will not play the role of a “warehouse for refugees”. Ankara has also rejected any EU policy that emulates the 2016 migration deal that saw billions of euros flow to Turkish coffers in exchange for curbing the Syrian refugee influx.

Bokhari said that refugee anxiety may be more pronounced in the EU than in Turkey. Thus, Turkey may seek to leverage European paranoia about refugees to show what it can deliver to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

“The Turks will signal to the Taliban that ‘we can get you things from Europe and make your case so play ball with us’,” Bokhari said.

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