NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the extremely rapid occupation of the capital, Kabul, by the Taliban, followed by the collapse of the withdrawal of Western troops and personnel, is a game changer in relations between Turkey and the Alliance.
After the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, Turkey’s position has changed systematically. Turkey’s president approached Russia by acquiring S-400 missile systems, reheated the frozen Mediterranean conflict with Greece and France, and signed a security protocol with Hamas in Israel’s detriment. All these geopolitical games have shown that Turkey considers itself a regional power and behaves as such, even if it affects the interests of some NATO allies.
Not infrequently, political, and military analysts have spoken of Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO or the relocation of the US nuclear arsenal from the Incirlik base.
Turkey profits from the Afghan crisis
At this time, the United States is feeling the full withdrawal from Afghanistan and the US image in the international arena is visibly affected. Biden cannot take on a conflict, even a diplomatic one, with Turkey, because it has to deal with multiple internal issues, plus China’s expansion and Russia’s geopolitical games.
The European Union is preparing to receive a massive wave of migrants and elections are approaching in Germany and France, so a diplomatic conflict with Turkey is out of the question.
Erdogan feels the international situation is complicated and sees an opportunity he cannot miss. Turkey assumes an active role in front of NATO in Afghanistan and in front of the EU by agreeing to stop, or at least block for a while the inevitable wave of migrants. Thus, the leader from Ankara positions Turkey as a very important player in the Middle East (diplomatically supported and with NATO information) and also benefits from European money to stop migration. It’s a new form of win-win, where the winner, on all fronts, is Turkey, while the rest of the pack seems happy enough to have some mild form of containment over a situation without solution.
The Islamabad-Kabul-Ankara Axis
Ankara holds a special position in Afghanistan, primarily due to the Muslim religion, but also due to geography, the two states having a common border. Turkey has participated in NATO missions in Afghanistan from the beginning, since 2002, but Turkish military troops have never participated in combat operations, limiting themselves to guarding and training.
Analyzing the current situation, we can see that Turkey has prepared its strategy for Afghanistan in advance. For 10 years, the Turkish military ran a hospital in Kabul that served Afghans in a neighborhood inhabited mainly by the Pashtun community, the same community from which most Taliban come.
Turkey withdrew about 1,000 Turkish citizens from Afghanistan, but more than 4,000 preferred to remain in Afghanistan. In other words, under the leadership of the Taliban, the Turks will continue to produce, do business and work in Afghanistan.
In addition to these benefits, it should be noted that Turkey has a very good relationship with Pakistan, the state that has strongly supported the Taliban movement. Turkey is the second largest arms supplier to Pakistan and the relationship between the two states is old and very strong. Greek media sources say that the Pakistani army participated in the 1974 invasion of Cyprus and that the Pakistani Navy is actively involved in the “Mediterranean Shield” operation launched by Turkey in the Mediterranean.
The current situation dictates that Turkey and Pakistan are the states with the most important levers on the new establishment in Kabul, but the situation may change, especially after the active involvement of Russia, China and Iran.
Ankara’s medium and short term strategy
Turkey is militarily and logistically involved in several areas (military in Syria, Libya and Iraq and logistically in Ukraine and the Caucasus). This type of involvement brings benefits in the medium and long term, but costs enormously. The Turkish economy is on a downward slope. Under these conditions, Turkey is expected to implement a political rather than military strategy in Afghanistan and to request financial support for ground missions from NATO, from the EU for anti-migration policy or from Qatar, a state that supports various Erdogan projects.
We must not forget that Turkey is ruled authoritatively by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and state policy, whether internal or external, is subordinated to its needs. Thus, the sultan needs a clearing of the image for the 2023 elections and may want the role of regional leader who has successfully managed the situation in Afghanistan.
The crisis triggered by the withdrawal of allies from Afghanistan and Erdogan’s clever moves reposition Turkey in relation to the US and the EU. Ankara is currently the best connected NATO state in the Middle East and this gives Erdogan an interesting set of cards that he will play in order to assert leadership and to project power.
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