Afghanistan: The Islamic connection

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Tuesday 13 Jul 2021

Al Ahram Weekly assesses Erdogan’s latest venture in Afghanistan

The Islamic connection
An internally displaced Afghan girl who fled her home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, peers from her makeshift tent at a camp on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan (photo: AP)

During the Diplomacy Forum held in the Turkish Mediterranean coastal town of Antalya last month, Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar expressed his government’s appreciation for Turkey’s offer to assume responsibility for securing Kabul International Airport following the departure of US forces from Afghanistan. “Turkey has an extremely important role both at a regional and global level,” he told the state-run Anadolu news agency on the fringe of the conference. “We very much welcome Turkey’s willingness to sustain the capabilities and the facilities as well as the high-level technological arrangements for the airport.’’ He added that this measure was necessary to ensure the continuous presence of diplomatic missions, consuls and embassies in the Afghan capital.

Ankara is certain not to disappoint. After all, it had been pushing for months to win such a strategic post to crown its efforts in Afghanistan. Even before the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) 18 years ago, Turkey had been a player in Afghanistan, deploying troops as it sought to expand its economic interests and political influence. When Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003, he added a religious and Ottoman historical dimension to the country’s mission in the central Asian country. Last week, Washington and Ankara discussed the nuts and bolts of an agreement on how Turkey is to provide security for Hamid Karzai International Airport and the financial and logistical support Ankara will receive for that purpose.

For its part the Taliban movement has rejected the Turkish move out of hand. It insists all “foreign forces” have to go and that includes Turkish troops. Responding to Erdogan’s offer to secure the airport last month, a Taliban spokesman said that Turkey should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the 2020 deal for the pullout of US forces. The Taliban, which have asserted their control over more than 80 per cent of Afghani territory, are now within reach of Kabul, their main goal, and they claim that a takeover of the capital is a matter of time. If they succeed, they will expel President Ashraf Ghani and his government which authorised the “fake” security mandate to the Turks. Taliban spokesmen have frequently boasted that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, warning that even if another Islamic country attempted to move in, the Afghanis would consider it an occupying power that would meet the same fate as other invaders. Would this threat deter Erdogan from keeping the 500 Turkish troops - the largest remaining foreign military force - in that war-torn country?

Most likely not. The great Turkish leader will press forward in his glorious march which will reap benefit for the Turkish and Afghan people, the pro-Erdogan media tells us.

But that has not alleviated concerns aired by political elites in Ankara and Istanbul, including some from the very corridors of the ruling AKP. They are worried about the unknown that awaits Turkey and Turkish soldiers in countries where they are not welcome; it helps little to know that other influential players in the vicinity, from Russia to India and China, believe that Turkish expansionism harms their strategic interests.

Turkish opposition parties keep pressing for answers to their questions. What does Erdogan hope to achieve by taking on that complex and unquestionably risky task. At what cost is this going to come to Turkey, which is hardly in the best of economic states?

Mustafa Balbay, a political correspondent and columnist for Cumhuriyet newspaper, reminded readers that before heading off to Brussels last month, Erdogan revealed the result of his forthcoming summit with US President Joe Biden. The Turkish president said that Turkey was the only country that could take on the security task in Afghanistan after the US left. He predicted that, in exchange for making the offer, his and Biden’s relationship would get off on the right foot.

“What more could the US possibly want?” Balbay asks.

He answers, “One is reminded of Napoleon’s words, ‘You don’t have to love me. It’s enough that you die for me.’”

Balbay relates that when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk saw World War II approach, he took steps to ensure Turkey’s security. These included the Balkan Pact to the west and the Sadabat Pact to the east. The latter extended to Kabul. “Ataturk knew very well that Afghanistan is the keystone of Asia. It is China’s neighbour and a geography that Russia wants to keep under its coverage.”

The Cumhuriyet columnist also noted that 60 per cent of Afghanistan is ungoverned territory. “Plus it’s the world’s main source of drug production. The drug is produced and bought at the value of one in Afghanistan. It reaches the Turkish border at the value of 10, leaves Istanbul with a value of 100 and reaches a value of 1000 by time it reaches Brussels. This is the geography about which Erdogan said, ‘We are the best equipped to provide security in Afghanistan.’ What kind of security? For who? For what in return?”

Erdogan and his extremist right wing allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are not interested in such details, much less in answering such questions. What concerns them is staunching haemorrhaging support for the AKP and MHP in case elections occur soon. They calculated that sidling up to Biden with the offer of taking up guard duty in Afghanistan would take the pressure off of Ankara, shift the focus away from its repressive practices and violations of human rights, and maybe lead Washington to reconsider sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system.

As for what makes Erdogan so confident about the mission in Afghanistan, he is counting on two factors: the fact that the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and the fact that the country has sizeable Turkic (Uzbek and Turkmen) minorities. Ankara has invested heavily in these during the past ten years, building schools in Afghanistan, offering large numbers of grants to study in Turkey, training Afghan civil servants, increasing the presence of Yunes Emre centres to disseminate Turkish culture and language, broadcasting Turkish films and television programmes, etc. All such activities have been instrumental in developing Turkey’s soft power in Afganistan, especially in Uzbek- and Turkmen-speaking areas. In addition, Turkey and Afghanistan have broadened their scope of diplomatic and strategic cooperation. For example, Turkey has been heavily involved in training Afghan military and police officers. At another level, the AKP has also attempted to forge political ties with similarity minded Islamist parties in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the Afghan terrain remains as rugged and treacherous as ever. If Erdogan gets his way and Turkey’s troops become the last NATO forces in Afghanistan, Turkey may soon be looking at another quagmire such as the one in Syria where “every step we took ended in frustration,” as Balbay put it. “Essentially, Turkey didn’t enter Syria; the Syrians entered Turkey, and the leaders of fellow NATO countries can’t shower enough praise on Turkey for this.” There are nearly six million Syrians in Turkey. Balbay suggests that if Kabul falls to the Taliban, thousands more displaced by war will “cross the mountains barefoot into Iran and from there to Turkey”, where there are already more than 500,000 Afghan refugees.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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