As the US presses on with its hurried withdrawal, it is Turkey that now threatens to embroil itself in an Afghan conflict.

Afghan-Turkish relations have a long history. Even if they commenced awkwardly. In the 1720s, war broke out between the Ottoman Empire and the Hotak Afghans. The Hotaks won an impressive victory, however relations thereafter quickly recovered and have since remained warm. An 1877 Ottoman Mission to Kabul aimed at encouraging the Afghan Emir to join forces with Istanbul in declaring war against Russia failed (1). It was Britain, not Russia, which was the subject of Emir Sher Ali’s hostility. Despite this, it achieved an appreciation of the importance of bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Turkey that came to full fruition in the immediate period following the Afghan and Turkish Wars of Independence. The Turkish Diplomatic Mission was the first embassy established in Kabul. Multiple, enduring layers of cooperation were established in the legal, educational, military and health fields. Afghan Emirs: Sunni Hanafi co-religionists of the Ottoman Sultan/Caliph, ensured that Friday sermons were given in the Caliph’s name. (2)

Afghanistan’s latest political chapter has been overshadowed by a US-led military occupation. As a NATO member, Ankara has served as part of the US-led coalition. Tactfully, however, the personnel have been decidedly non-combatant and instead deployed toward reconstruction and training Afghan forces. This was a similar role to that played by Turkish forces in Afghanistan in the early 20th century. Bearing this in mind, the Taliban, whose repeated assaults on international and Afghan forces characterised much of the last two decades, did not launch attacks against Turkish forces. Keeping in mind its role in development, at least 20 Turkish schools are operational in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghans study in Turkey, whilst the Turkish Red Crescent is active and operational in Afghanistan.

As the hasty withdrawal of the US gathers pace until its eventual climax, concerns have emerged as to the security of Kabul’s Airport. Turkey volunteered to operate the airport in the aftermath of the US withdrawal, likely to coincide with increased violence. This proposal was swiftly rejected by the Taliban. A cursory look at Kabul’s Airport historically only illustrates the rationale behind contemporary concerns as to the airport’s security.

The Airport in History

On 16th April 1992, Afghanistan’s last communist President Dr. Muhammad Najibullah for the last time left his presidential palace. He was fleeing Afghanistan and hoping to rejoin his family in exile in India. Before he could do so he was abruptly halted outside Kabul’s Airport. He was bluntly told that General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the militia leader who owed his rise to Najib, had assumed command of Kabul’s Airport. Dostum was threatening to kill anyone, including his onetime boss, who entered. Najib’s convoy was forced to turn back, and he took refuge at Kabul’s UN compound for the next four years.

In September 1996, the Taliban took Kabul. One of their first acts was storming into the UN compound. They apprehended Najib, ex-head of the brutal secret police, and tortured him. Najib was tied to the back of a vehicle, paraded around the city and finally put out of his misery with a bullet in his head. His corpse was hung in a public square. (3)

The parallels to 1992 are glaring. This time too, another foreign-installed government is teetering. The Taliban are once more on a blistering offensive. Dozens of districts have fallen to the insurgents, including those that at one point constituted the northern powerbase of General Dostum, precipitating yet another flight to Turkey: now Dostum’s traditional site of refuge.

The Dark Side

Two realities ought to inform Turkish policy toward Afghanistan. First is the fact that, however turbulently, Afghanistan is once again turning a new page. This, by definition, requires an appraisal of hitherto policy. Second is that as an increasingly relevant regional player at a critical juncture for Afghanistan, Turkey’s role in the country is augmented beyond its historic capacity. These realities are further buttressed when borne in mind historic Afghan-Turkish relations, together with the shifting global order markedly different to the one that gave rise to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Concurrently with health, education and reconstruction, there is a darker feature to Turkey’s Afghan policy, focusing inexorably on Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, has enjoyed warm relations with Turkish officials since the 90s partly due to pan-Turkic sentiment. This support for Dostum, having now persisted under the earlier Erdogan premiership and now Presidency, has raised many an eyebrow in Afghanistan. The harsh contrast between the two is the standout feature. Erdogan is an Ikhwan inspired figure whose overlaps, and indeed pictures with figures such as the mercurial Hezb Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are well known. Dostum, on the other hand, started his career as a communist militia commander under the tutelage of the Soviet Union and its local clients. Ironically, it was Dostum’s militia that was seen as an effective bulwark against the Mujahideen. Foremost amongst these Mujahideen were the forces of Hekmatyar: Erdogan’s one-time associate.

Ignoring the accusations of atrocities of the civil war of the 90s, it is in the era following 2001 that the role of Dostum, and by extension Turkey, merits further examination. Dostum has managed to achieve the unthinkable, running amok of the law even in the politico-legal free-for-all that has characterised the nature of the Afghan state following 2001. In 2008, Dostum fled Afghanistan amidst an uproar after forces loyal to him kidnapped and assaulted his political rival, a fellow Turk(men). As Vice President to President Ashraf Ghani, Dostum once again had to flee Afghanistan in 2017. More disturbingly, this was after a former political ally, Ahmed Ischi, accused Dostum of having raped him whilst holding him captive. Both times, it was Erdogan’s Turkey in which Dostum found safe refuge.

In the cold, often amoral realm to which geopolitics belongs, the rationale in allying with unsavoury figures is ever-present. These figures prove to be stalwarts of continuity, proving themselves as assets for their patrons in fluid, unpredictable countries. Yet in relying on Dostum, Ankara commits two own goals. By perpetuating the career and relevance of a one-time communist mercenary, Ankara contradicts the very essence of President Erdogan’s posturing as an Islamic leader. This is doubly as debilitating in Afghanistan, where Turkey already enjoys credible soft power across the political spectrum, with little need to pursue cold pragmatism where Ankara’s public diplomacy is well established. Many in Afghanistan otherwise enamoured by President Erdogan’s pretensions to Muslim leadership would naturally find themselves put off by the Dostum factor; betraying either a sinister ethnosectarianism or a cynical manipulation of religion.

It would also be a repeat of a principle mistake made by the US in its occupation of Afghanistan. In achieving its narrow geopolitical goals, the US too relied on and sustained discredited warlords. As the US belatedly found out, it was not only the warlords’ rapacity, but the general revulsion with which the general public held them that acted as impediments to serving overall US interests. Dostum, much like the other warlords reinstated and patronised by US diplomatic immunity and dollars, was and is a thoroughly discredited figure at large in Afghanistan. Nothing can better illustrate this than a cursory glance at Dostum’s predominantly Uzbek heartlands in the country’s northwest: the site of a sustained Taliban offensive that gains in ethnic heterogeneity by the day.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward too, the paradigm in which Turkey pursued its interests in Afghanistan following 2001 is itself collapsing. Whilst much is uncertain, including the shape a future government would take, the Taliban’s predominance in a future setup is far from doubtful. Decades-long foes of Dostum, whose part in the Dasht Laili massacre in 2001 can ill be forgotten and as the most powerful-military organisation in Afghanistan, the Taliban would hardly look positively at Ankara’s warm relations with Dostum. In order to strengthen its ties with any future government in Kabul, the marriage with Dostum would meet its overdue end to facilitate a further thaw in relations as a new period in Afghanistan would be unfurled.

Viewing the issue of Kabul’s airport too should be done in a similar vein. Faced with a President in the White House who has made all too clear his willingness to effectively topple President Erdogan, it is no surprise Ankara wants to prove itself useful to Washington. How this can be done within the broader realm of promoting its national interests is the crux of the matter. Cornered in an unfriendly neighbourhood with predatory rivals, being useful to Washington can be of use. Yet questions persist. If usefulness to Washington is the desired goal, how useful can Ankara be if viewed by the Taliban: the most powerful Afghan actor, as acting akin to the US’ bodyguard? Ankara has unilaterally declared its willingness to aid the US in securing the airport of a country itself mired in a two decade long insurgency against the US. That too without consulting the most powerful Afghan actors. By acting as the US’ doorman in the airport of a country from which the US is essentially fleeing, Ankara achieves precious little, and loses much.

Ankara would be better served by setting in place a conducive environment for Afghan factions to hammer out an agreement, even if it pertains solely to the perimeter of Kabul’s airport. This would achieve the double victory of building a useful correspondence with the Taliban going forward in addition to pre-existing relations with President Ghani’s government. It would have saved President Erdogan the embarrassment of portraying himself a Muslim leader whilst acting as guarantor of US interests in Afghanistan, where the general appetite for respecting US interests is rock bottom.

References:

  1. Quataert, D., 2005. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press. p.84
  2. Ibid, p.85
  3. Tomsen, P., 2013. The wars of Afghanistan: Messianic terrorism, tribal conflicts, and the failures of great powers. Hachette UK.