Erdoğan’s de facto recognition of the Taliban is part of a broader strategy - analysts

While Turkey, China and Russia are pleased with the crumbling of Afghanistan’s NATO-backed regime, the countries, which have poised themselves and important powerbrokers in the region, are faced with challenges posed by the Taliban, wrote analysts Michael Kofman, Aaron Stein and Yun Sun for War on the Rocks web magazine on Monday. 

All three countries have a had a relatively warm initial reaction to the Taliban takeover of the war-battered country, the analysts wrote, while adopting certain hedging strategies, with Turkey being the only nation eager to maintain military presence in the country.

Turkey is seeking to retain and expand its foothold in Afghanistan under the Taliban to help further its regional influence. It presently has 500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, the largest remaining foreign military contingent, and has played a key non-combat role in NATO missions in the country since 2003.

‘’The Turkish strategy is not necessarily in tension with those of China and Russia, but it is more focused on cultivating economic links and retaining control over the airport,’’ the analysts wrote.

Below is the portion of the article pertaining to Turkey:

‘’The Turkish government has adapted to changing events in Afghanistan and is prepared to de factorecognize the Taliban and engage with the new leadership in Kabul to advance its own interests. Before the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and the Ghani government, Turkey had sought to formalize its presence in a post-American Afghanistan. To do so, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to walk a fine line of engagement with the United States and NATO, on the one hand, and seeking Taliban acquiesce to a long-term Turkish role on the other.

Turkey’s engagement with Washington revolved around a request for the Turkish military to retain a non-combat presence at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, where it has had soldiersbased for more than a decade. These soldiers would help the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan government run the airport, including to help oversee flight operations at the only international airport in the country. From the outset of these negotiations, the Turkish government demandedfinancial compensation from NATO and the United States to subsidize the mission and requested that a contingent of American combat forces remain at the base to protect it from external attacks. Ankara had also requested a European presence, approaching both Hungaryand Georgia to deploy forces, according to interviews with NATO officials.

Ankara also sought to negotiate with the Taliban, working with its two allies, Qatar and Pakistan, to win support from the group before finalizing the agreement to take over airport operations. Turkey’s engagement with the Taliban before the fall of Kabul foreshadowed Ankara’s policy decisions following the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Since the fall of Kabul, the Turkish-NATO agreement to run the airport after the completion of the withdrawal has collapsed. Ankara, however, has proposed a similar agreement to the Taliban, offering to operate the airport and provide technical support if the Taliban leadership expresses interest in working with Ankara. The Taliban turned down Ankara’s offers to retain troops at the base, and Turkish forces began their withdrawal on Aug. 25. Despite the withdrawal, the Turkish leadership has retained an interest in retaining a civilian presence in the country and is continuing to negotiate with the Taliban about retaining a presence at the airport, with some international support.

Erdoğan’sde factorecognition of the Taliban is part of a broader strategy linked to longstanding Turkish foreign policy and tethered to negative domestic feelings about irregular migration. Since taking power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to deepen its links with Muslim-majority nations. The current national security elite is comfortable working with deeply religious entities, ranging from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria to different affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East. The AKP’s support for the Brotherhood has engendered considerable antipathy from the Gulf states, which view Turkish interference in Arab affairs as a national security threat. Ankara, however, has retained closer ties with non-Arab Muslim states, like Pakistan, that have cordial ties with the Taliban, and with Azerbaijan, which had troops deployedin Kabul under Turkish command.

Turkey’s policy has, almost accidentally, allowed for Ankara to “fence-sit” and be in a position to be of benefit to both its Western allies and to the Taliban. For Erdogan, the broader challenge he faces stems from rising domestic dissatisfaction with his rule, owing to a serious economic downturn linked to his own mismanagement. Turkish political elites have channeled their anger about the economy toward refugees. The AKP is often lauded as being welcoming of refugees, given a pre-2015 open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the civil war. This policy has shifted over the past half-decade, and the ruling party’s policies have become more xenophobic since it allied with the far-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party, to govern.

The collapse of the Ghani government has also stoked concerns that refugees will flee to Turkey via Iran. Images showing Afghans crossing the Iranian-Turkish border are common in Turkish media. The opposition has blasted Erdoğan for his handling of the issue and has falsely accused him of being a lackey of the Americans and of selling out his country in a secret deal with President Joe Biden to host Afghan refugees. The accusation is false, but the narrative is pervasive. The accusation is linked to Turkey’s handling of the Syrian civil war. In 2018, Erdoğan reached an agreement with the European Union to host Syrian refugees, in return for 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) in aid. This small price has been weaponized, with opposition politicians pointing to the agreement — and Erdoğan’s own opulent lifestyle — as proof that he will sell out the country and allow for migrants to continue undermining Turkish workers.

The AKP has rapidly begun to build a wall along its border with Iran, matching the wall it has built on its border with Syria, and has signaled to European and Russian leaders that it will not serve as a way station for Afghan migrants. The new media is awash with scripted photos of the Turkish military now patrolling Turkey’s eastern border, and the coverage is omnipresent on Turkish television. Erdoğan, then, has an incentive to show that he is securing his borders and, in so doing, standing up to world leaders that would have Turkey bear the burden of refugees.

Despite these domestic considerations, a majority of the Turkish public would like to see the Turkish military withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Erdoğan, however, appears set on exploring deepening links with the Taliban and using economic incentives to try and induce stability in the capital. This approach is rooted in his comfort with the group but is also part of an effort to appease Turkish firms eager to compete for construction contracts in the country. This core AKP constituency has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and building contracts in third countries, where Ankara has carved out ties, is a key part of their business model.

The Turkish government is clearly adapting to the new reality in Kabul. Ankara is unlikely to follow in lock-step with the United States moving forward and, instead, will seek to carve out its own relationship with the Taliban. The domestic factors in Turkey incentivize this policy, as does Erdoğan’s own conception of Turkish national interests. This reality mirrors the expected actions of other regional countries, all but ensuring that the Taliban will be less isolated than when previously in power, and the United States will have less leverage than it did before the invasion.’’

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