Turkey’s military presence in post-American Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities

Turkey’s military presence in post-American Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities

The United States’ rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan against the background of the Taliban taking control of major provincial capitals has left a serious political vacuum no single country seems ready to fill in the foreseeable future. Hedging their bets, different regional stakeholders have already been engaged in talks with the Taliban to extract assurances that its quick gains on the ground will not threaten the neighboring countries. Russia accepted Taliban representatives in July to warn against the use of Afghan territory to attack Russia and its Central Asian partners. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a Taliban delegation in Tianjin on July 28, calling the Taliban an important military and political organization in Afghanistan. He reiterated China’s hope that the Taliban will make a clean break with the terrorist organizations threatening Xinjiang. In the southwest, Iran has been beefing up its military capabilities along its borders with Afghanistan to be ready to respond to threats emanating from the Taliban which became more acute when the latter captured border city Zaranj on August 6.

On its part, Turkey emerged as an influential player, offering to deploy its troops in Kabul to protect the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Although Taliban leaders said they would not tolerate the Turkish military presence in Afghanistan, Ankara is determined to move forward implementing the agreement if it receives financial support from the U.S. In the context of the Taliban’s swift movement towards the capital one ponders what kind of risks or opportunities Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan might entail for its position in the international system. We sat with six Turkish experts to discuss the issue in detail.  

What is the strategic rationale behind Turkey’s decision to expand its footprint in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal and what kind of challenges or opportunities it may entail for Ankara’s position within the contemporary international relations system?

SERKAN OĞUL TUNA | Research Assistant, Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) 

Turkey has been a non-negligible actor with regard to geopolitical developments in Central Asia, despite its geographical distance from the region. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ankara has benefited from its ethnic, religious, historical, and cultural proximities with the peoples of Central and South Asia. Since 9/11, Turkish military personnel have been playing a significant role in Afghanistan, especially in the training of Afghan officers and protection of the Kabul International Airport under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and, subsequently, the Resolute Support Mission. Since the May 1 U.S. withdrawal from the country, Ankara has explicitly spoken about its willingness to stay in the Kabul area by undertaking (and maintaining) the protection of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, the only bridge of the landlocked country to the outside world.

Ankara has repeatedly expressed that its potential mission would be limited to the airport area. However, there is no grounded reason for the country to stay in Afghan territory while all of its Western allies have been withdrawing their forces. This mission could be a price for Ankara for the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system or a test for its commitment to remain a valuable member of NATO. Moreover, Ankara may want to increase its influence from Libya to Karabakh to

Afghanistan, demonstrating its military might in different regions and territories.  On the other hand, Turkey faces three challenges in its possible future mission: Firstly, the Taliban, who controls more than 85 percent of the country, rejects the maintenance of the Turkish forces in Afghanistan. However, Turkey could engage in a comprehensive dialogue with the group, as China and Russia have been doing for years. Turkey and the Taliban could find a common ground, with the help of local leaders and groups, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami.

The second and more important issue is the common discontent from Chinese and Russian decision-makers. Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both sides are unwilling for a Turkish presence under the banner of NATO in Central Asia. China has never made any statement on Turkey's plan for the Kabul Airport. However, an article criticizing Turkey's so-called pan-Turkist and expansionist policies was published on the website of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (RATS). This could be an implicit and diplomatic way to express its disapprobation. As for Russia, its Foreign Ministry stated that the conservation of Turkish troops in Afghanistan would violate the Accord between the U.S. and the Taliban. Ankara has not engaged in a dialogue with Moscow or Beijing on this issue. The two capitals are wary about the resurgence of the Turkistan Islam Party (TIP), which has hitherto been under the control of the Taliban. The Uyghur Question or the rise of other extremist groups in Afghanistan could be a hot topic between Turkey, Russia, and China in the next months.

The final and the most challenging question is the refugee and migrant influx to Turkey. The latter is already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees and more than half a million Afghan migrants. As the Taliban increases its territorial gains in provincial capitals and countryside, more Afghans head towards Turkey. While Central Asian countries refuse the asylum demands, even from the Afghan military officials, Iranian authorities are helping the migrants pass through its territory. As for Turkey, Ankara remains silent on this hot issue, despite the negative reaction from the Turkish public.


RAGIP SOYLU | Turkey Bureau Chief, Middle East Eye

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan simply wanted to court his American counterpart by taking the Kabul airport mission. The Turkish military had been guarding the airport for the last few years so it isn't an entirely new task for Turkey. Yet, it could require the deployment of further Turkish troops since NATO and the U.S. forces are withdrawing from the country.

Ankara expects some favors from Washington. One might speculate that they could be about S-400 sanctions or the Halkbank trial issue. In this context, Turkey might face two main challenges. Firstly, it needs to reach an understanding with the Taliban for the Turkish presence in Afghanistan. Taliban both in private and public made clear that they won't tolerate the Turkish troops. They could easily conduct deadly attacks near the airport that could spark a serious domestic backlash against the Turkish government.

Secondly, Turkey needs concrete U.S. military support including material and financial backing for its activities in Afghanistan. The Turkish side wants assurances from the U.S. on the swift deployment of its troops and air support in case of emergency. Since Washington doesn't have an airbase in the neighbouring countries, it is hard to see how the U.S. could be reassuring on this equipment and assistance challenge.

Other than receiving some favours from the U.S., the deployment could also give the Turkish government some leverage domestically, since the arrival of Afghan migrants in the country has recently become an alarming issue. Ankara would try to sell this mission as a way to secure Kabul and slow down the arrival of the migrants.


GÖKHAN ÇINKARA | Political Analyst and Researcher, Erbakan University

It stands out in Ankara as a topic that has been raised in recent months that Turkey will upgrade its position in Afghanistan to a different level. Here it becomes crucial to understand what dynamics lie behind Turkey taking such an initiative. 

It is clear that Turkey's interest in Afghanistan has a historical background. But here, at the moment, it is necessary not to skip several issues on the agenda. The first one is the change in Turkish elites’ view of global geopolitics in favour of a closer partnership with NATO and the EU. For now, the influence of foreign policy cadres who envisioned prioritizing relations with the East in the context of the recalcitrant Trump presidency in the U.S. has diminished. Accordingly, Turkey has been making several geopolitical readjustments to adjust its position to the Biden doctrine. Ankara’s quest to stabilize diplomatic relations with the Gulf countries, Egypt and Israel may be seen as a reorientation of its alignment strategies along the lines of NATO and the EU.

Turkey's intensifying and deepening relations with Azerbaijan in the post-Second Karabakh war period spread the idea that approaching Asia is critical for Turkey’s place in the new regional realities and that the NATO/EU security strategy has become vital for decision-makers. Turning to Asia was important. The military-economic partnership with Azerbaijan would balance Russia, while the new engagement with Afghanistan could slow China's expansion into the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Hence, I read the strategic rationale behind Turkey’s increasing interest in Afghanistan as part of the second phase of its foreign policy orientation towards Asia due to changing geopolitical balances.

At the end of the day, it is possible to say that Turkey's new geopolitical center of gravity will be Asia. The level of cost of facing the Taliban in Afghanistan will also reveal its political repercussions for Turkish politics. The Turkish presence in Azerbaijan fosters nationalism, while the presence in Afghanistan can popularize a mixture of nationalism and secularism in Turkey. In this context, I see it as the dropping of the thesis that it was necessary to highlight religious belonging as a way to balance Soviet expansionism in Central Asia and its replacement with the idea that Turkey should create a new geopolitical generation against China through fanning nationalism among the population.


ARDA MEVLÜTOĞLU | Consultant, Aerospace and Defense Industry

Shortly after the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in December 2001 to provide support for Afghan Interim Administration. ISAF started operations in Afghanistan in January 2002, with the main task of providing and maintaining security initially in the capital city of Kabul and its districts, and later the whole country.

Turkey has been actively supporting ISAF from the beginning. Turkish Armed Forces led ISAF between June 2002 and February 2003, commanding 8,000 personnel from 30 nations. The Turkish Armed Forces' contribution was 1,450 soldiers. Between February and August 2005, Turkey again led ISAF and also operated the Kabul International Airport under NATO command and control structure. Between August 2008 and February 2009, the ISAF HQ was supported by the 100 personnel of the 3rd Army Corps and starting from January 2014, ISAF HQs were supported by the 3rd Army Corps Command for one year, and the Commander of the 3rd Army Corps Command served as the ISAF Chief of Staff.

Turkey took over the leader country responsibility of the Kabul Regional Command that was one of the six regional commands of the ISAF operations in November 2009. This mission was conducted until 31 December 2014, being extended by one-year periods.

In addition to operations under ISAF, Turkey has been supporting the Afghan administration by providing military training and assistance. One of those many missions that Turkey undertook in Afghanistan was to make Afghan National Security Forces sufficient enough to ensure the security of Afghanistan on their own. For example, basic training of non-commissioned officers (NCO's) of the Afghan National Army was provided by the Turkish Armed Forces between 2010-2011 in the Gazi Military Training Centre opened in Kabul. Turkey also provided support to the Afghan nation between 2010-2014 through the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) established in Sheberghan in the province of Jowzjan in the north of Afghanistan and between 2010-2014 through the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) established in Wardak province.

ISAF operations ended on January 31, 2014. Under the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), which started to operate in January 2015, Turkey undertook the command of Train, Assist and Advise Command of Kabul (TAAC-C); operational and force protection services at the Hamid Karzai Afghanistan International Airport (HKIA); provision of personnel support to the Train, Assist and Advise Command- (North/TAAC-N), and provision of personnel support to the RSM Headquarters.

So, what are Turkey’s main motivations in deployment to Afghanistan and increasing footprint in the region?

Turkey, right before the foundation of the Republic, has had very strong relations with the people of this geography. This strong bond manifests itself in the current relations between Turkey and Pakistan. Similar cultural and social bonds also exist with Afghan people, as seen on countless occasions during Turkey’s ISAF mission.

Peace and stability in Afghanistan have direct implications in the stability of Central Asia, and therefore in the lower Caspian region. Instability in Afghanistan might easily trigger a chain reaction in the Caucasus and Caspian regions, which in turn will pose a direct security threat to Turkey.

Without a doubt, another important factor is Turkey’s ambition in reinforcing its position within NATO. Turkey has been one of the most active members of the alliance and has contributed to many multinational operations and deployments. This is in line with Turkey’s ambitions in expanding geopolitical influence in its periphery.

As a result, Turkey’s new undertaking in Afghanistan is not without risks, but also represents the country’s new posture in global politics.


LEVENT KEMAL | Researcher and Journalist

The long-term strategic goal of Turkey's plans to deploy troops to the Hamid Karzai airport mission in Afghanistan is not clear. Initial views were that Ankara's move was an attempt to repair relations with the U.S. where it had problems due to the S-400 debacle and its rapprochement with Russia, and to consolidate its position in NATO in the medium term. The second view was that the Afghanistan mission was an attempt to ratchet up its influence in Central Asia, as expressed by some domestic and foreign analyses. Yet, this view fails to answer the question of how a limited and non-combatant task force in Kabul will create a multiplier effect in terms of regional impact.

In addition to all these views, it is to be noted that even if Turkey does not confront the Taliban in Afghanistan, it will face a third challenge that no one has thought about yet. In the long term, Turkey is at risk of being caught in the center of a conflict between Moscow and Beijing, which have been in joint action against the U.S. and trying to maintain a zero-sum relationship while tolerating each other. One of the quiet scenes of the rivalry between China and Russia was China's entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) area with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China, which started to influence the Turkic states in Russia's near abroad with its debt-trap diplomacy, did not support EAEU projects. On the other hand, although both countries express that they want stability in Afghanistan, we must also say that the period of stability offers an opportunity to physically connect Beijing to the Central Asian states, which Russia sees as its sphere of influence. Despite its military, political and cultural presence in Central Asian countries, Russia is aware that China will rapidly expand its sphere of influence. To prevent this, Afghanistan is an area where Russia should at least have an equal presence with China. However, the Chinese administration has already proven that Beijing is the sole option for the investments expected by the Taliban and the Kabul government in Afghanistan. What Russia can offer Afghanistan in the face of this large-scale economic power is limited to the field of security.

In this respect, Turkey's Afghanistan mission - if it undertakes this task and becomes operational - will add Afghanistan to the list of Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan where Turkey has recently found itself in a geopolitical tug of war with Russia. Similarly, the 'economy first' relationship between China and Turkey will undoubtedly be affected by the situation in Afghanistan. Although there are not very intense economic relations between Turkey and China, it should be mentioned that the current relationship is in Beijing's favor. East Turkestan and Taiwan issues remain frozen, although they do not come to the fore because of Beijing's economic dominance over Turkey. It is unclear whether Beijing will impose these issues in its favor in the future as it has increased its direct and indirect investments in Turkey in recent years. A rivalry between the two great powers for economic and political influence over the states in the Central Asian region through Afghanistan will put Ankara into a difficult situation that it did not expect, even if everything goes well and Turkey's Kabul mission continues without confronting the Taliban. We also have to point out the fact that Ankara lacks the economic, political, and diplomatic means to implement a policy of balance between these two powers.

Besides this sinister scenario, even Turkey's best Afghanistan scenario could have disastrous results. If Turkey fails to turn the support it will receive from the U.S. into other areas related to Russia and China, it may face a catastrophic collapse. If Turkey is caught in the middle of a conflict and the U.S. support is limited to Afghanistan, Ankara will enter a difficult period on a regional level. In this respect, Turkey's mission in Kabul, caught between Beijing and Moscow, will risk Ankara's strategic plans and breakthroughs in its immediate neighborhood including Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean. It's hard to say whether a mission this risky, that is dependent on large-scale support from the U.S., and one that will turn into a competitive arena for China and Russia offers any opportunity for bolstering Turkey’s position within the contemporary international relations system.


HÜSEYİN BAĞCI | President of the Foreign Policy Institute, Middle East Technical University

In parallel with the U.S. declaring to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan until 11 September 2021, the Taliban increased its assaults in the northeast region and accomplished controlling at least eight provincial capitals out of 34. However, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that even if American forces had been withdrawn, air support and financial aid would continue in the future.

Turkey is among the countries most affected by Taliban offenses. Thousands of Afghan male refugees have been fleeing for Turkey using Iranian territory. Iran has collected all refugees and carried them to the Turkish-Iran border without consulting Turkey and set them free to pass the border. Even though the Turkish government seems willing to extend its help to the immigrants, Turkish people have great antipathy and worry about accepting those who have different cultures and traditions that would cause problems between the two societies. The Turkish government should consider agreeing with Iran to prevent Afghan refugees from passing through Iran to reach the Turkish border while taking strict measures to accept them within Turkey.

In this context, Turkey is eager to secure Kabul airport if its requirements from the U.S. are fulfilled. This mission might help control refugee flows if Turkey can secure the Iran-Afghan border together with Afghan government forces. In any case, the Afghan refugee problem would be a headache for Turkey because of Iran’s ignorant behavior.