Afghanistan Debacle and Implications on US-Turkey Relations

By THO Contributor, S. Suha Cubukcuoglu


What the geopolitical implications of Afghanistan on Turkey-US relations are?

In July 2021, the US president Joe Biden announced that the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan would be complete by August 31st. [1] Nonetheless, the rather unexpected, sweeping, and shocking takeover of the country by Taliban disrupted an orderly settlement to the US-led military campaign that had seen ups-and-downs over a chaotic twenty years. Starting with George W. Bush’s global war on terror (GWOT) and pre-emptive strike doctrine after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil, the coalition forces defeated Al-Qaida and pushed it to back to neighboring Pakistan’s mountain’s where its leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. That, however, did not bring an end to the war, which, despite the-then commander Gen. David Petraeus’s COIN strategy with more boots on the ground, raged on and claimed many more lives. Almost $2 trillion spent over the past two decades supposedly to train and arm the Afghan army vanished in thin air with Taliban’s final assault on Kabul in August. As people are abandoned to their fate, ensuing events depicted a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. A war without a clear goal nor an exit strategy, just like in Iraq and Syria, ended with catastrophe.

Soon after, pictures of Taliban members indulging themselves at a fun fair in Kabul emerged on media. Aimlessly driving around in bumper cars with guns in hand, they shot smiles at an anxious world watching a humiliating situation unfold in a beaten country. Those photos vividly capture the state of Afghanistan and the wider region in miniature, which can be summarized in two words as “organized chaos”. Not only the country has become more vulnerable to outside influence and a breeding ground for extremism, but there are also long-term geopolitical implications of this tectonic shift on regional and global affairs. As people witnessed yet another failed US attempt to shape a far-off land, [2] the era of post-9/11 ended with the clear emergence of a multipolar world order that benefits China and Russia and propels ascendance of regional powers like Iran and Pakistan. The collapse of the Bush-era US neocon strategy to spread liberal democracy by force is symbolic to show the limits of America’s reach. It is even more striking to have to come to this outcome in a country dubbed as the “graveyard of empires”. This is not (yet) the “beginning of the end” for the Western-led neoliberal world order, since neoliberal globalization is a powerful trend, and it won’t be reversed by one or two events as such; but the spread of liberal values by US military interventions has certainly ended in a rather disorderly and painful way. There are several conclusions that we can draw from this.

Taliban at a fun fair in Kabul


Source: CNN Türk, 2021


First, there is a geopolitical realignment, like the next chapter of Peter Hopkirk’s renowned book, “The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia”, about the late nineteenth century struggle between British and Russian empires. China is steadily emerging as the most formidable power broker in Eurasia. Located in troubled borderlands, China wants to secure its western backyard in Central Asia to have more breathing space against encirclement on the south and the east. As Beijing flexes its muscles in the Pacific, the US vice-president Kamala Harris scrambled this week to reassure her allies, to tell them to sit tight and push back on Chinese designs, while Joe Biden issued a public statement to back her efforts. However, the US’ willingness and the ability to lead a coalition in overseas expeditions is in doubt, most notably among NATO member states. Earlier in June, the former SACEUR Commander Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis wrote for Bloomberg that “the US will press on NATO allies to deploy maritime forces to a standing maritime task force in the Pacific”. [3] Now on, this type of mission will appear to be an uphill struggle against strategic currents that are taking over the scene. In a recent commentary, Stavridis provided lessons to draw from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), as the NATO mission in Afghanistan was called, and one of those is “the US was excessively optimistic about what was possible to achieve”. [4] It looks like the West is searching for its soul once again after repeated failures in the wider Middle East. Also, the present situation deals yet another disappointment for neoliberal institutionalists who had put so much hope in the Biden administration’s promise to bring back the rules-based global order under American leadership. In nowhere more than Afghanistan, the international community appeared incapable of achieving peace and stability.

Second, on a regional scale, China and Pakistan piggy-back each other on many fronts. The power vacuum left behind by the US disinterest and disengagement empowers Pakistan, which has been a long-time active player in Afghanistan. Pakistan is uncomfortable of the growing ties between the US and India and wants to gain a strategic depth, especially concerning border disputes in the contested region of Kashmir, and it seems to have found this in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China’s diplomatic and financial muscles are put to work for consolidating its influence in the region given that its Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) middle corridor passes just north of Afghanistan. Expect the Pakistani port of Gwadar to become a key gateway for China’s access to southern seas and cornerstone for growing connections with the rest of Central Asia through highway, rail, and pipeline infrastructure. China already offered to re-build Afghanistan in return for Kabul’s acquiescence towards its policies in Xinjiang region. Taliban plays a wait-and-see approach for now, but in a country dependent on foreign aid, they are more amenable to Chinese economic pressures and political designs than before. On one hand, factions in Taliban have ties with and look with sympathy towards Uighurs in China’s East Turkestan region; on the other, there are Turkic minorities in northern Afghanistan that are at odds with a centralized Taliban government in Kabul. Whether the Taliban can live in a power-sharing agreement with those groups or try to use them as a bargaining chip against China, time will show. The US-backed New Silk Road project in the north-south transit route that started in 2011 and aimed to integrate Afghanistan into the region promoting connectivity, peace, and stability [5] appears to be in shambles. Similarly, the long-stalled TAPI pipeline project to transfer Turkmen gas to lucrative markets in India depended on the region’s complex mosaic of unstable relationships. As Russia takes a more activist military stance in Central Asia and China grows its economic muscle, progress on these projects will be prone to huge downside risks at best. Similarly, Iran is poised to claim a more independent role in the region and adopt a more hawkish stance in nuclear negotiations with the West. The chaotic neighborhood has become yet another flashpoint in the great power rivalry of our century.

Third, as for implications on US-Turkey relations, Turkish president Erdogan and Biden’s meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June had raised expectations of a more active role for Turkey after the US drawdown. Ankara had asked for logistic, financial, and legal support to accept a mission to protect Kabul international airport and negotiations were underway until recently to find a compromise acceptable to all parties. Kabul airport is the only international gateway in the country and Turkey wanted to control it for intelligence gathering. However, Taliban’s refusal to harbor a Turkish contingent connected to the NATO mission and its swift takeover of the country created new conditions on the ground. Add on top the growing public mood in Turkey against further involvement in the Afghan debacle, the Turkish minister of defense announced their withdrawal from Kabul on August 25th, 2021. According to news reports, Turkish businessmen and the embassy staff are happy about this outcome as otherwise they would become targets of harassment by the Taliban. On the Turkish foreign policy front, it appears that left with an uneasy choice between appeasing Biden and listening to domestic public opinion, Erdogan opted for the latter. How this impacts the tight rope that Turkey tries to walk with the US for the past several years is yet to be seen. 

One probable aftereffect is the potential inflow of Afghan refugees that puts additional tensions on already strained livelihoods in Turkey. Another is that Taliban’s re-emergence lends legitimacy to similar armed groups/insurgents around the region and emboldens other non-state actors to claim statehood. Islamist fundamentalists and jihadists elsewhere find heart in Taliban’s takeover. Turkey watches carefully if ISIS and YPG/PKK terrorists are positioned to take advantage of this atmosphere and try to gain more sympathy among their supporters. This is the most critical strategic threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity in the short to mid-term. At these crucial times, the decision for withdrawal was right. It is important for Turkey to focus her attention on the immediate neighborhood for now rather than other places where costs far outweigh the benefits.


Sources

[1] The White House: “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan”, Briefing Room, Speeches and Remarks, July 8, 2021. Available from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/

[2] The New York Times: “For America, and Afghanistan, the Post 9/11 Era Ends Painfully”, August 18, 2021, Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/17/world/asia/afghanistan-united-states.html

[3] James Stavridis. 2021. “NATO Targets the ‘3 C’s’: China, Cyberattacks and Climate Change.” Asharq Al-Awsat, June 18, 2021. https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/3033846/james-stavridis/nato-targets-%E2%80%983-c%E2%80%99s%E2%80%99-china-cyberattacks-and-climate-change.

[4] James Stavridis. 2021. “I was deeply involved in War in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Here’s what we must learn”. Time, August 165, 2021. https://time.com/6090623/afghanistan-us-military-lessons/

[5] U.S. Department of the State: U.S. Support for the New Silk Road, 2017, Available from: https://2009-2017.state.gov/p/sca/ci/af/newsilkroad/index.htm.