Turkey's high-risk gamble in Afghanistan

Erdogan must know his battle-hardened forces will find it difficult to contend with the Taliban

It’s easy to view the American-led war in Afghanistan as a disaster. Twenty years after US and Nato forces arrived to end years of harsh Taliban rule while vanquishing Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, the Taliban is retaking great swathes of territory as US forces depart and the country tumbles toward chaos.

Observers foresee another civil war or Taliban takeover, while the militant group has banned smoking and prohibited men from shaving in some areas it controls, and the US’s post-9/11 president, George W Bush, has emerged to denounce Taliban brutality, making the past two decades seem almost like a mirage.

But now here comes Turkey, arriving to hold the line and potentially save the republic by taking over security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, as first reported last month by The National. The deal is not yet final, but US and Nato officials have confirmed their interest in Turkish forces taking control of a crucial symbol and a logistics, economic and military hub. US-Turkey talks last week are said to have made real progress.

The thinking is that as fellow Muslims – particularly Muslims deployed by a state run by the fellow Islamist Justice and Development Party – Turkish troops would be much less likely to come under assault from the Taliban. Indeed, Turkey had been positioned to serve as mediator for peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, until President Joe Biden announced the US withdrawal and the talks fell through.

But Afghan extremists have for decades shown few qualms about attacking their Muslim brethren, and last week the Taliban vowed to “take a stand against” Turkish forces if they remain in Afghanistan, urging Ankara to reverse its decision on Kabul airport. A Turkish security official dismissed these as “symbolic statements” from the Taliban and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to be a good Nato soldier.

Turkey has no combat troops in Afghanistan, but has supported US and Nato operations there since 2002. Turkish forces have assisted in the training of Afghan military officers, instructors and commando units, and a Turkish contingent currently leads the multinational force that trains, advises and assists Afghan military divisions in Kabul.

In addition, Ankara has developed close defence ties with neighbouring Pakistan, including a handful of joint military programmes, and last October signed a defence deal with another Afghan neighbour, Uzbekistan, that includes industrial co-operation and joint training.

In taking over Kabul airport security, the Erdogan government may not be going as far out of its comfort zone as some might think. Let’s not forget, the Turkish military has proven itself time and again on regional battlefields in the past few years.

In early 2020, Ankara helped to hold off a massive Russian-backed Syrian assault on Idlib province. Then Turkish forces played a key role in halting the Libyan National Army’s advance on Tripoli. And finally Turkey’s advanced drones and military advisers were said to have been crucial in last year’s Azeri victory in Nagorno-Karabakh.

These successes, along with its robust defence industry, relatively reliable proxies and greater risk tolerance, have “enabled Turkey to exercise along and near its periphery what amounts to a geopolitical veto", retired US military officer and State Department adviser Rich Outzen wrote this month for the Washington Institute think tank.

Might that veto extend all the way to Afghanistan and the edge of South Asia? We may soon find out. The Taliban would represent Turkey’s greatest foe thus far. The extremist group still seeks to establish an Islamic state, but it has taken on more of a pan-Afghan appearance and de-emphasised ties with Al Qaeda and ISIS. Since being ousted in 2001, the Taliban has reportedly gained some support among the country’s Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek minorities.

The Taliban now claims to control 85 per cent of Afghan territory, though the Afghan government and most analysts dispute this figure. The group has yet to take a provincial capital, but it has captured several key border crossings in recent weeks, from Islam Qala in Herat province to Spin Boldak in south-eastern Kandahar.

Last month, US intelligence estimated that the Afghan government could collapse in the face of the Taliban assault as quickly as six months after the US pullout. That would mean troops representing an Islamist-run Turkish state could face a showdown with the militant Islamist Taliban as early as February.

Several thousand Turkish troops may be required to secure Kabul airport. Already, some 600 Turkish troops are stationed in Afghanistan and in January, the Turkish army took the lead on a key Nato readiness task force, placing thousands of soldiers on standby, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Turkey maintains military bases in Azerbaijan and Qatar, which could provide rapid support, and Ankara could further strengthen its military presence by importing some of the thousands of Syrian mercenaries it reportedly deployed in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Still, the 60,000-strong Taliban has of late been shredding the 300,000-troop, Nato-trained Afghan army. Retired Turkish ambassador Faruk Logoglu last week warned of “dire consequences” for Turkish forces facing a Taliban assault in Afghanistan. Yet Mr Erdogan may feel he has little choice.

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Erdogan’s Kabul airport commitment is likely less about Afghanistan than it is about finding a way to end US sanctions

Since Ankara’s 2019 purchase of Russian S-400 missile defences against the wishes of the US and Nato, the Turkish state has been seen as deeply problematic by fellow coalition members. Thus Mr Erdogan’s Kabul airport commitment is likely less about Afghanistan and the Taliban than it is about finding a way to end US sanctions on the S-400s and return to the good graces of its western partners.

This is not unreasonable, as Washington wants to get out of the nation-building business in the Middle East and Eurasia. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is in talks with several Central Asian republics about stationing a significant US contingent at one or more of their military bases, to be able to respond to a possible crisis in Afghanistan. And the US needs to keep Kabul airport secure to enable limited diplomatic, military and intelligence operations.

Mr Erdogan has said the Turkish mission expects military, financial and logistical support from the US, as well as the end of the S-400 dispute. Along with intelligence operatives, some 1,000 US troops might remain in Afghanistan after its withdrawal is complete in September: 650 to protect diplomats and a few hundred more to oversee the Kabul airport transition.

Might Turkish forces draw any regional backing? Russia may not side with Ankara in a Turkey-Taliban tussle, but China (seeking stability for Belt and Road Initiative), India (as always, aiming to counter Pakistan) and Iran (no more refugees) could back Turkey.

Yet, at least until a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is imminent, Ankara should expect minimal military support from western and regional powers. This is pretty much an ideal scenario for Mr Erdogan, who often speaks of reviving the Ottoman era and building an empire capable of shaping the region. He may soon face his greatest test in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires.

Published: July 18th 2021, 2:00 PM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National