Why Erdogan is keeping a close eye on Afghanistan

Why Erdogan is keeping a close eye on Afghanistan

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With the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Turkey’s interest in guarding Kabul airport has been overtaken by events. Without losing interest in keeping its military forces in the country, Turkey has now turned to closely watching the shaping of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a predisposition to the Taliban ideology. Turkey’s Islamic jurisprudence and that of Afghanistan are similar because they embrace the same Sunni-Hanafi school (madhab).

As a devout Muslim, Erdogan may find channels of communication with the new masters of Afghanistan. He has a decades-old close relationship with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami political party.

After a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Erdogan said that Turkey is open to holding talks with the Taliban. “Our aim is to get in touch with the Taliban government and agree on a common agenda, because we want the stability and security of that country,” he said.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Friday told the Turkish daily Turkiye: “For us, Turkey is a very important actor. It is both a respected and strong state in the world and has a special place in the Islamic Ummah. Afghanistan’s relations with Turkey cannot be compared to any other country. We need Turkey’s friendship and support more than that of any other country.” The initial messages from both Ankara and Kabul are therefore positive.

Turkey has several reasons to be interested in the unfolding of events in Afghanistan. One is the political Islam that comes on to the agenda of the international community as a result of the Taliban’s achievement. It was thought that this ideology had failed in many countries. The Taliban regime may now become a laboratory where various practices of political Islam can be put to the test.

As a devout Muslim, Erdogan may find channels of communication with the new masters of Afghanistan

Yasar Yakis

Many countries will recognize the Taliban sooner or later. Al-Qaeda and Daesh fighters scattered all over the world may now move to Afghanistan, where they will likely have the legitimate protection of a state and be able to turn it to a center of attraction for fundamentalists.

Several years ago, a Turkish citizen who was caught smuggling his wife and children into Syria said in his court testimony that “the way Islam is practiced in the Daesh-controlled part of Syria was more in line with my perception of Islam.” Many more like him may now try to move to Afghanistan. Apart from this attitude at the individual level, Turkey — together with Pakistan — may become genuine supporters of the regime. This would put a secular country like Turkey, which is a NATO ally and an aspiring member of the EU, in an awkward position.

A second reason for Turkey’s interest in Afghanistan is the presence of Turkic peoples there, including ethnic Hazara Turks. As they embrace the Shiite faith, they may not be a high priority for Ankara’s highly Sunni-biased government, but they make up 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Another Turkic people, the Uzbeks, make up another 9 percent of the population, and Turkmens another 2 percent. Altogether, Turkic peoples constitute 21 percent of Afghanistan’s population. This corresponds to half of the Pashtun population that makes up the backbone of Afghanistan’s population. Therefore, Turkey cannot turn a blind eye to what happens in the country.

A third factor is the historic ties between the two countries. For more than a century, the Turkish and Afghan peoples have cooperated in many areas. Despite the takeover of radicals in Afghanistan, cooperation has remained close. Turkey has given $1.1 billion of grants to Afghanistan over the last 16 years. It also has a commitment to provide $75 million more in 2021 and 2022. This commitment was agreed with the government of Ashraf Ghani, the president who has now fled the country. For the sake of continuity, Turkey may now renew this commitment with the Taliban.

Fourth is the refugee question. A major destination for Afghan refugees is the EU. The European bloc and Turkey have been — and still are — at odds with each other over the issue of refugees. Because it already hosts 3.5 million Syrians, Turkey has reached the limit of its capacity to accommodate refugees. Ankara has to negotiate with the EU a fair and equitable agreement to regulate the flow of refugees toward the latter’s member states.

A fifth reason is the pan-Turkic agenda of Erdogan’s unofficial coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party. This party is sensitive to any subject pertaining to ethnic Turks anywhere in the world, including Afghanistan.

Last but not least is Erdogan’s search for the means to consolidate his domestic power base ahead of the 2023 general election and for a window of opportunity to steal a role in the international arena, as he aims to promote himself as an important player.

Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar

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