As Turkey presses ahead with its plan to take over security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, many are questioning its objectives. With Afghanistan on the cusp of civil war and the Taliban warning of “severe consequences” for Turkey, the plan is fraught with risk. So why is Turkey so eager to pursue such a risky mission?
In short, Turkey’s commitment to a renewed role in Afghanistan represents Ankara’s geopolitical savviness in increasing its power in the Sunni-Muslim world as part of its pan-Turkist agenda, while also reminding western partners of its value as a strategic ally. These two goals are closely linked: by boosting ties with western partners and expanding its influence in Turkic-speaking states, Turkey’s takeover of security at Kabul airport could solidify its position as a regional power player. The risk, of course, is that it fails to hold the line and Afghanistan falls to the Taliban.
A recalibration of relations
The Turkish military has been in Afghanistan since 2001, though its role has never extended to combat. As part of the NATO Resolute Support Mission, Turkey already has a presence at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Other Turkish troops are involved in training, assisting and advising Afghan officers.
Yet Turkey’s relationship with NATO has been strained for the past few years, mainly as a result of eastern Mediterranean naval aggressions and Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defences, against strenuous NATO and US opposition. This latter move led the US to impose sanctions on Turkey last year and remove Turkey from the F-35 joint strike program.
With the removal of Western troops from Afghanistan nearly complete, handing over security at Kabul airport — a vital hub for logistics and transport, diplomacy, the economy and humanitarian aid — is a matter of real urgency for Washington. Understanding this, Ankara’s offer — to guard and run Kabul’s airport — aims to repair ties and prove its value as a strategic partner to the US and NATO. In return, Turkey expects US financial and military support, as well as the end of the S-400 sanctions.
A pan-Turkic agenda
Turkish troops have been in Afghanistan since the start of the NATO mission in late 2001, fulfilling international commitments. More recently, Ankara appears to have realized that Afghanistan’s ethnic composition represents an opportunity for its pan-Turkic agenda.
Pan-Turkism, a political doctrine based on the unification of Turkic-speaking peoples stretching from the Black Sea to Western China, has been a key element of Turkish foreign policy in recent years. Projecting military might and seeking stronger diplomatic, trade and security ties, alongside a dose of soft power, has enabled Ankara to expand its influence in Turkic-speaking lands.
Across Central Asia, Turkey has played the ethnic Turkic card — and the shared hunt for members of FETO, accused of plotting Turkey’s failed 2016 coup — to boost economic and diplomatic ties. Turkey has built strong ties with Afghanistan’s neighbour, Uzbekistan, with a memorandum of understanding signed between the countries in March this year to improve bilateral relations and cooperation. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar just visited Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan last month. A lead security role in Afghanistan, with minimal other foreign troops, would further enhance those efforts.
Turkey’s military support was pivotal to Azerbaijan’s defeat of its rival Armenia in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, improving Ankara’s military reputation among the Central Asian republics. To mark the victory, Erdogan recited a poem in Baku that upset Iran, the only country that borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Iranian-Azeri poem laments the separation of lands on either side of the River Aras and, according to Tehran, is a symbol of pan-Turkism.
Erdogan’s pan-Turkic ambitions are not limited to central Asia. There is a sizeable Turkmen population based mainly in the mountainous area in Latakia close to the Turkish border. Following multiple military incursions, Turkey oversees sizable chunks of northern Syria, including the predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin. Turkish control was swiftly followed by the introduction of the Turkish lira, and Turkish banks, as well as a “Turkified” school curriculum in certain areas.
In Afghanistan, Turkey is adopting a similar course of action, made easier by its close ethnic ties to the country’s Turkmen and Uzbek populations. Turkey has long maintained a close relationship with Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord and former Afghan vice president. In the north, Turkey has helped build schools where Turkish is taught and distributed aid through the Turkish Red Crescent, while Turkish TV series, or dizis, have become regular fixtures on Afghan TV.
Afghanistan provides Turkey with another opportunity to spread its influence further, while currying favour with the West. Despite the risks — which seem considerable, particularly as many believe the Taliban could soon take over the country — Turkey appears to view the potential geostrategic gains as worth it.