Activists of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) take part in a demonstration against the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, in Sakarya Square in Ankara
Policy U-turns are among the fortes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP); and the AKP government has exhibited them, once again, in Afghanistan. Only a week ago, no one would have questioned its resolve to keep Turkish troops there rather than have them follow the rest of the departing NATO forces.
This was especially true after it secured – over strident cries from Turkish opposition quarters cautioning against another adventure in another strife-ridden war-torn country – the prime and prestigious role of guardian of Hamed Karazi airport. But then, after the suicide bombing at the airport that killed dozens, Ankara announced its decision to withdraw its troops and, by 30 August, the last batch was on the plane home.
The following day, in contrast to earlier government assurances that Turkey would never close its doors to people fleeing the brutal, medieval scourge that has seized control in Kabul, Erdogan protested that Turkey would not become a “refugee warehouse” for migrants from Afghanistan. The statement precipitated an outcry on social media. “True, we’ve become the only refugee warehouse in the world. True, we’re building walls... But the doors are open!” said one Twitter user.
Few believe that, once the wall the government is building along Turkey’s border with Iran is complete, the refugee influx will stop. The wall, like the shift in rhetoric, are intended to assuage domestic public opinion and the AKP’s far right allies in particular. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the government has other plans.
According to opposition sources, the government is secretly and systematically working to implement a new strategy based on the premise that the Afghan refugee crisis is not a short term phenomenon. As part of this strategy, the government controlled press is tasked with generating a media and social climate conducive to accepting refugees. This is crucial to preparing the ground for a likely EU approach with an eye to concluding another deal along the lines of the 2016 agreement, whereby which Turkey absorbs the influx of refugees to keep them away from Europe’s doorsteps in exchange for billions of dollars of aid to help accommodate them.
Naturally, such plans would not go over well with a public reeling under the current economic straits and blaming the refugees for loss of jobs, and in an increasingly polarised and xenophobic atmosphere that has led to mounting and sometimes deadly attacks against refugees as well as local minorities.
But Erdogan is unlikely to be dissuaded. He has a vision that includes leveraging Turkey as a power to be reckoned with in the geopolitical equations of Central Asia. Using the refugee crisis as a way to stay in Europe’s good graces would help; and some believe showing a readiness to work with, reassure and perhaps even support the Taliban would not hurt either. The chaotic US withdrawal left a vacuum too good for him to pass up. If, for example, he concluded a cooperation agreement with the Taliban such as the one he made with the Fayez Al-Sarraj government in Tripoli, he could add another country to those in which Turkish forces are deployed. The list includes Libya, Syria, Iraq, Northern Cyprus, Qatar, Somalia and Azerbaijan.
Despite the blood drenched-message delivered by the Kabul Airport suicide bombing, Erdogan appears upbeat. In remarks to reporters on the plane with him on his way to Bosnia, he said that, contrary to other NATO members, Turkey would be keeping its diplomatic mission in Kabul. Ankara was carefully assessing its next steps in Afghanistan, he said, adding, “we are ready to provide all kinds of support for the unity and solidarity of Afghanistan as long as we receive the same approach from it.” In his view, the Taliban’s statements and actions since taking over Kabul have been “moderate,” which should help that movement “become a state and govern a state.”
Following a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Erdogan’s office issued a statement that Turkey and Russia were studying recognition of the Taliban and establishing relations with it “gradually.” It said that Erdogan and Putin “had agreed on being in coordination regarding the relation to be developed with the government to be formed in Afghanistan in the upcoming period.”
Some sources added that Erdogan also plans to have a say in the shape of the new government in Kabul, using his connections with Pakistan and Qatar which – both close to the Taliban – to this end.
Western commentators have made no secret of their concern over these developments. They fear that Erdogan’s support for the Taliban could harm the foundations of the Turkish republic which is looking forward to its centennial in 2023. They are also worried about short- and long-term regional impacts, given how events in Kabul have already triggered quakes with potentially destabilising effects. Erdogan’s barely concealed enthusiasm for the opening that Afghanistan has offered him should already set off alarms among the NATO countries, especially those bordering the Mediterranean. As one news commentary put it: “A tacit go-ahead from Ankara would give extremists a shortcut to targeting places where attacks had once been rare or non-existent.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly