Erdogan’s latest foreign policy failure is Afghanistan

Dr Shujaat Ali Quadri

As Afghanistan welcomes installation of Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, the list of countries that stand losers after 20 years of futile and barbarous war include Turkey. Under the leadership of its pompous President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey tries to intrude into the affairs of almost every Muslim country where some conflict brews. Thus, Turkey was playing smart in Afghanistan as well. While its army was part of invading Nato forces, Turkey has been maintaining contacts with all the warring sides — US, its allies, the Northern alliance-led governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani and even recently Taliban.

For the last six years, Turkish forces were incharge of the security of the Kabul airport, which is the link of the world with Afghanistan. However as Kabul fell to the Taliban on 15 August and the subsequent chaos followed, the Turkish forces preferred to stay in the corner and the US and British forces took charge to evacuate their security and civil personnel out of Afghanistan. Later, the Turkish forces returned to take reins of the airport. But, the Taliban who have conditioned Turkish forces’ presence in exchange for the logistics and other infrastructure support snubbed them. The Taliban has also made it clear that they would solely keep control of the airport.

Burden of Afghan refugees

Turkish foreign policymakers have a history of pie in the sky thinking where rhetoric never meets the reality on the ground. The move to engage with the Taliban is hazardous – even more so if Turkey recognises the Taliban government.

Many structural issues will probably impede Turkey’s ambitious role in Afghanistan. First, Erdogan will need to contend with an expected rush of Afghan refugees heading towards Turkey’s eastern border. Domestically, nationalist fever and anti-immigrant tension have been running high towards the Syrian refugee population. Foreign policy adventurism has been a great tool to distract from domestic failings, but its efficacy is waning as domestic challenges continue.

Combined with a spiraling economic situation and many policy failures relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent bushfires in southern Turkey, it is unlikely that Erdogan can afford another risky foreign policy blunder.

While Turkey has strengthened its borders and refugee policy towards the incoming Afghan refugees, the European Union is also pressuring Turkey with monetary incentives to contain any rush of refugees to European borders. The money could alleviate some of the pressure that the AKP feels, primarily as they draw closer to the 2023 election where Erdogan and the AKP’s position in government are growing less and less tenable. Securing another term on Turkey’s 100th anniversary is an important milestone for Erdogan’s legacy.

Currently, Turkey hosts around 300,000 Afghan refugees and this number is the maximum after what Pakistan and Iran, two immediate neighbor’s of Afghanistan, are hosting. Turkey already has the biggest baggage of Syrian refugees to tackle.

Foreign policy failures

Turkey finds itself with fewer allies and friends. Unilateral actions in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan highlight a foreign policy direction that is increasingly reactionary and opportunist. Turkey’s pursuit of a stabilising and mediating role in Afghanistan appears to be another pipe dream – the risks by far outweigh the benefits.

The international community has yet to decide how to deal with the new Taliban regime and should view Turkey’s pursuit of relations with the Taliban with caution. Turkey may find itself dragged into a costly military engagement and isolated once again for the sake of economic opportunities and trying to bring itself into the good graces of allies and friends it has previously cast aside.

Stake on Taliban opponent warlord Dostum

While the Afghan was at its peak and Taliban made gains in certain areas, famous Uzbek origin warlord and first vice-president of Afghanistan, General Abdul Rasheed Dostum, disappeared from the scene. He was later spotted in Turkey, undergoing treatment for undeclared ailments. Recently, he landed in his stronghold Mazar e Sharif in a private Turkish airplane. His forces are said to have given fiercest resistance to Taliban onslaught. Ultimately, he and other prominent warlord Noor Ata Mohammed, also supported by Turkey, fled Afghanistan to a neighbouring country and then ultimately reached Turkey. Their fate will be decided as Turkey negotiates the new Taliban regime. Dostum’s failure ensured that Erdogan will not be able to bend the Taliban to give Turkey control of Kabul airport and provide it inroads into Central Asia via Afghanistan.

However, despite all the above-mentioned failures in Afghanistan, Turkey, unlike all its Nato allies, has decided to keep its embassy in Kabul operational and Turkish diplomats are in regular contact with Taliban. Turkey will also likely be among the foremost countries to recognise the Taliban regime.

(The Author is National President of Muslim Students Organisation of India)

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