Explaining Erdoğan's interest in Afghanistan

In a striking turn-about, Erdoğan declared during his recent visit to Bosnia and Montenegro that he was not knowledgeable about the difference between the ISIS and the Taliban. AKP tenors too followed suit by hammering in the fact that no matter what, Turkey is not open for a single more refugee.

Both Turkey’s and Afghanistan’s populations are predominantly Muslim, of Sunnite sect, of Hanafi school and both even follow the way of Imam Maturidi and not salafism. Yet the common points stop there and it would be difficult -if not impossible- to claim that President Erdoğan has a particular affinity with the Taliban.

After all, Turkey remains a secular republic as per its’ constitution and the Taliban seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. The Taliban emerged from the deobandi movement’s madrassas (religious schools). Deobandism was formed as a revivalist hence in a way a “modernizing” movement in India in late 19th century. Perhaps not academically but politically it can as well be considered as a younger “cousin” to Arabian Peninsula’s Wahhabism in Pakistan-India-Afghanistan.

From a socio-anthropological point view, the Deobandi doctrine also fits as hand in glove with the Pashtunwali, the traditional lifestyle of the Pashtun people. Although a census has never been conducted in Afghanistan, according to educated estimates 40% percent of the country’s population are Pashtun and in next door Pakistan that percentage reaches 50%. Furthermore, not only Taliban’s ranks are mostly but not entirely filled with the Pashtuns, its’ leadership cadres are exclusively Pashtun. Hence an “Af-Pak” Pashtun union is perceived as a separatist and at that an existential threat to Pakistan. Hence the Taliban’s being mostly a creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which may in turn be seen as the “deep state” of that country is understandable.

The northern Uzbek and Turkmen ethnic minorities are of Turkic descent as the Tajiks are of Persian origin. For Turkey then, therein lies another affinity with Afghanistan. The recently rebranded Northern Resistance’s ranks are in turn predominantly Tajik and their single logistics line -if there exists one- is with Tajikistan. Although Shia Hazaras are not of Persian (they are supposed be remnants of Genghis Khan’s Mongol armies) origin, sect trumps ethnicity for Iran and Iran refused to recognize –as such- the yet to be formed Taliban government. Last, the young Turkish republic and its’ founding president Atatürk had signed a cooperation treaty in 1928 with the visiting Afghan king of the time Amanullah Khan who had to flee his country the following year while trying to prematurely emulate the republican experience of emancipation.

The 600 strong Turkish non-combatant military presence in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul incessantly operated since 20 years. When the Afghan National Army crumbled in a mere 11 day-takeover campaign by the Taliban, Turkey seemed to detach its’ presence from NATO and find common ground with the Taliban to remain in position. Mysteriously, Ankara insisted in running and securing the airport. In that initial effort, the Turkish Minister of Defence Akar tried in vain to work in tandem with Hungary from within NATO and Pakistan from among Afghanistan’s neighbours. Neither worked and more strikingly, the “friendly and brotherly” nation of Pakistan appeared to be main obstacle in realizing that project. Then Turkey turned towards Qatar, again in vain and for the time being Qatar seems to fly solo as the airport re-opens for international flights following the completion of the US and NATO evacuation. The Turkish troops returned home in the wake too. 

Ankara’s initial plan was to get financial, logistical and diplomatic support of the US and NATO. In domestic politics, the islamist AKP and the nationalist MHP duo, tried in vain to convince the public opinion that “Turkey’s defence line started in Afghanistan.” People in Turkey are tired with these military adventures and moved on to other priorities as the economy and the irregular migration. It should be kept in mind that beyond generally acceptable military operations in Iraq and Syria, the expansion of the so-to-speak assertive foreign policy in Libya, Qatar, Somalia and even Sudan is far from creating any enthusiasm among the electorate. While Syria and Iraq can be marketed as the inevitable extensions of the war against the PKK terror, no matter how many TV series are tailor-made by the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) to inspire imperial grandeur, not many people are ready to buy it.  

Therefore, in a striking turn-about, Erdoğan declared during his recent visit to Bosnia and Montenegro that he was not knowledgeable about the difference between the ISIS and the Taliban. AKP tenors too followed suit by hammering in the fact that no matter what, Turkey is not open for a single more refugee. Turkey is already home to up to five million refugees and the irregular migration will be an issue that will cut-through all else during the approaching election campaign. The opposition stands ready to not to shy away from weaponizing it. At the same time, Erdoğan also tried hard to rationalize touching base with the Taliban by musing that all states should be open to talks with all stakeholders in such circumstances. That too, proves to be a difficult balancing act as Ankara hosted up until 2014 PYD leaders only to change track and militarily intervene in northern Syria shutting all doors with the SDF and the PKK while simultaneously expanding its’ military foot print in northern Iraq.

French president Macron’s visits in Erbil and Mosul following the international conference in Baghdad that France co-organised should have rung some bells in Ankara too as it made appear Erdoğan all talk but no walk especially when it comes to Mosul. Now, the main opposition CHP sends a delegation to Erbil and Sulaymaniya – a first.

Yet at the same time, while the so-called “Blue Homeland” doctrine fast became a relic of the past, Erdoğan makes openings to Greece, UAE, KSA, Egypt, Israel and even Armenia to break his increasing diplomatic isolation.

All in all, there is the “who/which is driving who/which” question when it comes to domestic and foreign policies, the civilian and the military/security sides of the government and the islamist and the nationalist components of the ruling de-facto coalition. As –if there won’t be snap elections- the 2023 presidential and general elections approach, Afghanistan may as well remain in the rear mirror.

September 13, 2021 The new cold war