After the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, Turkey intends to play a more important role in the country and cooperate with the Taliban.
2,000 Turkish soldiers have been part of the international military contingent within the ISAF mission in Afghanistan since the beginning. From June 2002 to August 2005, Turkish commanders were responsible for the mission, in which 43 nations participated. Turkey’s primary mission in Afghanistan was to secure the airport in Kabul.
Back in June this year, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed with American President Joe Biden the possibility of military support from Ankara to the US, and already then there was a possibility that the Turkish military would provide security of the Kabul airport after the withdrawal of US troops.
But Ankara’s goals are not just about airport security. Even before the transition of all power in Afghanistan to the Taliban (a movement banned in the Russian Federation), Ankara believed it could gain a new role in Afghanistan and beyond that in Central Asia as a whole. Ankara’s high hopes were linked not only to the use of the country’s favorable geographical location in its interests but also with the possibility of monetization of its rich subsoil, joint construction and operation of the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) Pipeline.
On August 25, a Taliban spokesman said that after the opening of Afghan central banks, the new government’s goal is to complete the TAPI pipeline, which would bring hydrocarbons from the Galkynysh Gas Field to India. As indicated in the Western publication Air&Cosmos, the project is funded by the Asian Development Bank, whose two prominent donors are the United States and Japan. The new pipeline is expected to become operational in 2023 and transport more than 33 billion cubic meters of gas annually for the next 30 years, including the gas extracted in the Afghan fields of Herat and Kandahar. By reviving this project, Washington aims to use Ankara’s capabilities to isolate Turkmenistan from Russia and China, its primary gas consumers, and weaken the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project.
Undoubtedly, Ankara’s heightened interest in further consolidating its position in Afghanistan stems from energy projects: Turkey is consistently becoming a critical energy hub for Europe, enabling it to influence the EU. These include neighboring Turkmenistan, another essential partner for Ankara, and the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Nor should we forget the interest in Afghanistan as a market for the “new Turkish empire” Erdogan is building, and a source of some raw materials.
In addition, Turkey is interested in reviving another ancient transport corridor within Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli or Jade Road, which once largely coincided with the Silk Road. This infrastructure project, developed by Turkey and approved in 2017-2018, is designed to connect Turkey via Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, and from there provide exits to both South and Central Asia to help establish another important project for the current Turkish authorities – “The Great Turan.”
It is with President Erdoğan’s emphasis on securing the territory of Great Turan as a global supranational entity uniting both Turkic and other peoples of Central Asia that Ankara’s expansionist ambitions have grown particularly fast in recent decades. Exploiting the slogan of “Turkic brotherhood”, Ankara assertively advances its military-political interests in Central Asia, pushing the leaders of the region’s states to support the idea of establishing a common Turkic army. At the same time, it is noted that this policy does not bring tangible benefits to the countries of the region but poses a direct threat to the ruling elites, forming in the countries a pro-Turkish lobby that defends the interests of the “Turkish big brother” rather than its own nation.
It should be noted that Turkey has been slowly and methodically strengthening its position in Afghanistan for decades. Since the late 2000s, the Turks have been involved in training the Afghan army and providing financial aid to Kabul. In recent years, Turkey has been actively investing in Afghanistan, developing its business, and its ties with Qatar and Pakistan, which have their own interests in Afghanistan. Ankara has no difficulty in engaging in dialogue with the Taliban, Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Ankara sought to strengthen its position in Afghanistan in order to strengthen its Great Turan project and obtain a significant bridgehead in Central Asia. And this allows it to influence the situation in “Turkestan”, that was the name of the distinctive historical and geographical region of Central Eurasia and Central Asia, widely used by Turkey in the 19th century and early 20th century, to put pressure on Russia and China (let us not forget that the Uighurs of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the PRC are also Turks).
Ankara achieves its success on today’s Afghan chessboard mainly because it can actively use its religious advantages and play a special role in negotiating with the Taliban as a predominantly Muslim country. A Taliban spokesman in late August reiterated this point to some extent on Turkish television, telling Ahaber that the Taliban want good relations with Turkey because Afghanistan and Turkey are “brothers in faith.” However, conservative circles in Turkey believe the Taliban are much closer to Islam than Erdoğan and his system. Therefore, a dialogue with the Taliban, in their opinion, should be conducted very carefully because their radical ideas may influence the conservative part of the Turkish population. This is highly undesirable for Erdoğan.
However, we should not discount Ankara’s actions in Afghanistan and its desire to strengthen the Great Turan project carried out with the direct participation of Washington. After all, it was with Ankara that the US most actively discussed the transfer of control over the Kabul airport. In addition, having lost virtually all previous opportunities to exercise lucrative influence on the region, Washington clearly expects Ankara to act through it here in the future by strengthening its position in Afghanistan. Particularly with regard to such regional states which are Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors as China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. And the states such as Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which may not border on Afghanistan but have their own interests in the region and depend on the future policy of Kabul.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.