At the press conference he organized ahead of his visit to the NATO Leaders’ Summit in Brussels, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “Turkey is the only reliable country that can prudently manage the situation in Afghanistan.”
By: YASIN AKTAY*
It is clear that this statement is an acutely accurate reflection of the current state. No matter how you cut it, it is indisputable that there is a situation in Afghanistan that must be handled. Whether NATO stays or pulls out, whether the U.S. leaves NATO and withdraws or prefers to stay, there is a situation that needs to be managed, and there isn’t anyone else among the international actors more capable of taking care of the situation. Many countries have borders or relations with Afghanistan, but it is also a fact that relations built with just a single faction of the country is subject to tensions and dispute in the eyes of other factions.
Frankly, the clearest, most obvious reality of the current situation in Afghanistan is the Taliban. Nobody can present a plan by disregarding the Taliban with respect to how Afghanistan will rule its future. The fact that this reality is seen so clearly by NATO after two decades is nothing other than the confession that the last two decades were a fiasco on NATO’s part. Taliban, the reason underlying NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, the reason why it deployed to the country in the first place, is a force that drove the U.S. to withdraw after two decades; it is a movement that has calibrated everyone’s actions or is ready to do so.
When Erdoğan pointed to Turkey as the sole country capable of properly managing the situation, his particular emphasis on its “reliability” isn’t arbitrary. Up until now, Turkey never undertook a warrior role in Afghanistan, though it entered the country as a NATO member. It has never been involved in any close combat with any element in Afghanistan. Thus, due to Turkey’s close cultural and historical proximity, there have been occasions which its presence provided protection for even other NATO elements. Its presence provided legitimacy and protection to NATO elements to a certain extent, even if not completely.
There was not even the slightest attack on Turkish troops by the Afghan public, and even Taliban, NATO’s arch enemy. As Turkey’s presence there has always been on positive missions, it further strengthened its existing reputation and historical-cultural ties. It is a fact that Afghanistan trusts that Turkey has no destructive objective targeting them, and that it has been making efforts and carrying out humanitarian operations for the peace of all factions and tribes in Afghanistan. This is the case because, with all its policies to date, it has proven through its constructive attitude towards all the countries meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs that it is unbiased, and is acting in accordance with the common interests of the Afghan people. Hence, its tight relations with most Turkic countries and Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, more than qualifies it for a mission that can ensure stability within the country.
Furthermore, it should be grasped that the new situation poses certain threats or risks against the sustainability of this reliability. First, Taliban is advancing towards further filling the void that is forming with NATO pulling troops out of Afghanistan. Many areas are already rapidly entering under Taliban’s rule without any resistance – and in fact, willingly. In other words, it is clear that the Taliban is going to have political power parallel to its increasing military power. It needs to be ascertained that this situation will encounter other sorts of resistances, and Turkey may thus be called to fill the position vacated by NATO. Numerous political developments may draw Turkey into the vortex of tensions it will want to avoid. Turkey must not forget that its influence and reliability in the country is not the result of it being a NATO force, but primarily because it is Turkey.
Some of the Afghans with whom we spoke desire for Turkey to leave completely along with NATO, and then come again, alone, with its own influence and within the scope of a new deal with the Afghan people. Of course, this request is being expressed with the awareness of how difficult it is to put into practice. At the end of the day, there is a justified explanation not only in the eyes of the Afghan public but also the international community for Turkey being there as NATO member.
We have not yet heard those who constantly ask what business Turkey has in Libya, Syria or Somalia question out loud what we are doing in Afghanistan. This is intriguing as well. Perhaps they have become inured to Turkey’s historical ties with Afghanistan, and the existing relations in recent history resulting from these ties. However, we need to criticize our form of relations. We have provided significant humanitarian aid or made serious investments in Afghanistan with whom we have a strong relationship based on trust. However, unfortunately we cannot talk about adequate and effective management of these investments.
Here is one example through the evaluation and statement of an Afghan friend who had a direct experience:
“When Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and other countries around the world sponsor a student or invest in them, they provide full support, and consider them a goodwill ambassador for their country as long as they live. They do not cut ties with them. Unfortunately Turkey is not like this. Turkey invests in students. It meets academic costs until the student completes their master’s degree and even Ph.D. When students who graduate in Turkey return to Afghanistan, most have no ties left with Turkey, and what is worse, when these alumni want to return to Turkey, they experience difficulties in their visa procedures. Turkey needs to take this matter in hand and pay more attention to the alumni who are its capital in Afghanistan and protect them.”
There are actually several other examples like this. What is lacking in Turkey’s general approach to operational regions is that sociology, cultural studies and the contributions of cultural ambassadors are not sufficiently involved in the process. This is a whole different matter. We will return to the subject if the opportunity arises.
*Yasin Aktay is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a leading figure of the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party) in Turkey. (this column has been Published first in Yeni Şafak Turkish newspaper)