AFGHANISTAN : Turkey’s Political-Military Strategy to Stabilize Afghanistan
Executive Summary: Whatever the battlefield outcome after the completion of U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan at the end of this month, Turkey will be a pivotal player in the country moving forward. This will likely be the case not only for the security of Kabul and its airport, but for the domestic balance of power that emerges and the regional geopolitical maneuvering that follows. Turkey’s hedging strategy of triangulation may seem unsavory to the West, but it may also be the best chance NATO, and the U.S., have for salvaging interests in a deteriorating situation.
The end of August 2021 marks a significant turning point in Afghanistan’s long-running Taliban war, which neither began nor will end with the American combat role. The nature of the turning point is easy to misportray: the U.S. is not withdrawing all forces or assistance, the Taliban’s territorial control is less in extent and degree than claimed, and Afghans remain willing to fight the Taliban while their government retains the means to do so (White House, June 25; Ozy, July 28; al-Jazeera, July 25). The Taliban may well achieve control of heavily Pashtun areas in the south and east of the country, but it has no demonstrated aptitude to run a modern economy or national government, let alone win the hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun majority (al-Jazeera, October 26, 2020; Caravanserai, August 2).
Kabul is still coping with the shock of the accelerated U.S. drawdown, but has a campaign plan to refocus efforts and secure strategic points across the country in the coming months (TOLO News, July 26). That campaign’s outcome depends in large measure on two key variables, one internal and the other external. The first is Kabul’s ability to maintain enough military and administrative cohesion in most of the country to keep a diverse coalition of communities on their side rather than retreating into a desperate and subordinate neutrality, as has occurred anecdotally (ANI News, May 29). The second is Kabul’s retention of its main strategic advantage over the Taliban—broad international support and assistance with the legitimacy they confer—which hinges on the security of the national capital region and its airport. The linchpin to retaining that advantage, as well as the best chance to avoid a catastrophe for U.S. interests in the region, lies with the Turks (Duvar, July 22).
The U.S. and Turkey have held extensive, though not yet conclusive, negotiations to coordinate Turkish and American support to Kabul’s security (Daily Sabah, July 13). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled approval, contingent upon U.S. provision of diplomatic, logistic, and financial support (BBC Turkish, July 20). Yet Turkey’s motives, and capabilities, to take on the mission are not merely a product of desire to please the Biden Administration. The brief assessment below aims to remedy the deficit of serious analysis about what the Turks have in mind.
Erdogan’s critics have been quick to attribute his airport offer to adventurism or desperation, but there are rational motives to stay (al-Monitor, July 30; al-Jazeera, August 2). First, by assuming a pivotal role in the security of the capital and the airport, Turkey demonstrates value and improves standing within NATO (Brussels Morning, June 14). Second, Turkey improves its ability to protect long-standing relationships with, and increase leverage over, a variety of Afghan groups and communities (The News, July 26) Third, a functioning government in Kabul is necessary to limit the flow of irregular migrants to Turkey, which poses a number of risks and threats for Turkey and a potential crisis for Europe, too (Yetkin Report, July 27; Politico.eu, July 27). Fourth, Turkish companies—especially construction firms favored by Erdogan—stand to benefit from reconstruction contracts should Afghanistan stabilize or achieve a political settlement, and access enhances their competitive position (TOLO News, February 4, 2019). Fifth, this is not a new mission for the Turks, who have been advising Afghan security forces in Kabul (since 2007) and protecting the Kabul airport (since 2015) since for years as part of the NATO mission (Haberler, June 19). Finally, a continued role in Kabul preserves Turkish diplomatic efforts to balance Iranian, Pakistani, and Saudi influence and grow its own geopolitical role in the “heart of Asia” (TRT World, June 23; hoa.gov.af, 2019). Even the Taliban appears to see Turkey as a necessary partner for Afghanistan’s future (on a national rather than NATO basis), and has softened its initially aggressive response to Erdogan’s offer of a continued role by agreeing to talks with Turkish officials (al-Araby, July 26).
Modalities of Turkish Strategy
A cornerstone of Turkey’s Afghanistan strategy since 2001 has been a triangular hedging approach balancing Kabul, NATO, and the Taliban. To Kabul it gave moral and practical support short of direct participation in combat. To NATO it contributed military contingents for training, staff support, and a variety of transportation and logistical services. The Taliban was kept from outright enmity through calibrated diplomacy involving Qatar, as well as maintenance of discrete contacts through intelligence channels and the provision of project aid and medical services to constituencies of concern to the Taliban. The approach was typified by the establishment of a Turkish military hospital in Kabul that served Afghans for over a decade in a heavily Pashtun neighborhood before closing in 2015 (J Arch Mil Med, February 2015). The hospital at Camp Doğan on Jalalabad Road was a mile down the road from the Turkish-founded training academy for Non-Commissioned Officers at Camp Ghazi (Dvidshub, July 16, 2010). Turkish personnel carefully balanced community contacts, micro-projects, and political outreach with the full gamut of ethnic and political groups, including Taliban-adjacent ones.  The Turkish contingent in Kabul previously included Albanian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and other national contingents, and it seems that Ankara remains interested in a patina of multilateralism through inclusion of troops from other countries (perhaps Pakistan and Hungary) (Geo TV, June 15).
These intertwined commitments of service to diverse Afghan communities, non-kinetic military training and support, and general adherence to NATO’s strategic line on Afghanistan provided value and kept the Turks from becoming targets. Camp Doğan and Camp Ghazi are now run by the Afghan military entirely, but the Turks will likely pursue a similar policy through a combination of Kabul-based training teams, out-of-country military training and continued Turkish development assistance to Afghan communities (Turkish Press, November 24, 2020). Out-of-Afghanistan training continues today and is set to expand. Thousands of Afghan commandoes, infantry, technical specialists and police have been trained in Turkey since 2010 (Military Review, August 31, 2013). NATO’s training program for Afghan commandoes will now shift to Turkey in its entirety (SOFREP, July 30; DW, July 27). Afghan officers and special forces continue to train at Turkish military schools on a bilateral basis, as well (Anadolu Agency, July 17).
Another dimension of Turkey’s strategy will be careful management of Afghanistan’s “swing voters”: powerful communal leaders (warlords if you prefer) with the ability to sway votes, militias, and governing coalitions (TheWeek.in, July 13). These include Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose Junbesh movement and powerful network among the Uzbek community is largely pro-Turkey. It also includes Pashtun leader Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, Hazara leader Abdul Khani Alipur from Wardak, Tajik politician Mohamed Atta Noor in the Balkh area, Jamaat-e Islami leader Mohammed Ismail Khan in Herat, and perhaps even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (Gandhara, April 21). Turkish officials (military, diplomats, and intelligence) have, like Ashraf Ghani himself, cultivated careful ties with these men, and the reduced U.S. role in the war will remove one of the impediments to their closer integration within the state. Ankara has long been more willing to look past the unsavory biographies and affiliations of Afghan power brokers, and Turkish strategy will undoubtedly seek pragmatic arrangements with them (DW, July 6, 2017).
A third element of Turkish strategy will be leveraging its special relationship with Pakistan to facilitate pressure on the Taliban to avoid fatally wounding the Kabul government and instead commit to a negotiated settlement (IISS, April 17, 2020). Pakistan is constrained from acting against the Turkish presence in Afghanistan as it did against the Western presence both because of popular affinity between the two nations and increasingly close defense ties (Turkey is Pakistan’s second-biggest arms supplier, and the two militaries have extensive training exchange and support programs). Turkey and Pakistan have the sort of patronage ties to the opposing sides in Afghanistan that could enable them to craft space for a compromise settlement that preserves the Kabul government and its control over most non-Pashtun areas while granting the Taliban a substantive national political role and control over most Pashtun areas. Neither country, nor their Afghan clients, would be served by a drawn out general civil war that destroys more Afghan infrastructure, scares off reconstruction funding, drives more Afghans out of the country, or invites in a new hegemon.
Turkey’s strategy for Kabul and for Afghanistan more broadly is thus decidedly more political than military. The Turks will avoid the template Ankara applied to conflicts last year in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus, which involved open warfare and aggressive use of hard power (Washington Institute, July 9). Instead, the Turks will seek to maintain a middle position as a tense modus vivendi emerges between Taliban-controlled (mostly rural) areas and Kabul-administered (mostly urban) areas. Turkey will work with Qatar and Pakistan to amplify influence over the Taliban, and with Western and other foreign donors to amplify influence over Kabul (MENAFN, August 2). Turkish forces have conducted no offensive operations against the Taliban in their decades on the job, and have not been intentionally targeted by them, either. While Turkey has proven capable of absorbing battle casualties in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, Ankara doubtlessly understands that active fighting in Kabul involving Turkish troops would effectively end their mission—and collapse Erdogan’s long-standing Afghanistan policy. We should therefore not expect Turkish drones, artillery, and electronic warfare systems to reprise their role along the Hindu Kush. The Taliban and Kabul, for their parts, certainly understand that antagonizing or forcing out the Turks would end the former’s chances of achieving political recognition and the latter’s chances of survival.
A final element of Turkish strategy will be recognizing and mitigating risk. At least three critical risks could scupper Ankara’s Afghanistan efforts:
- dramatic casualty risk—several parties have motive to attempt a spectacular attack that inflicts significant casualties on the Turkish non-combat troop presence. Iran, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (IS-K), potentially Russia, or Taliban hardliners all have possible reasons to want the Turks to pack up and leave. Turkish public tolerance for casualties has been solid in the counter-PKK fight and in northwest Syria, but public revulsion over escalating costs in a quite distant mission might upend Ankara’s delicate balancing act. The Turks can mitigate, though not entirely eliminate, this risk by maintaining hyper-vigilance against suicide bombers and complex attacks at Turkish facilities in Kabul. They have successfully done so over the past decade, with the one exception (car bomb attack on a Turkish diplomat in 2015) apparently being a case of mistaken identity for which the Taliban subsequently apologized (al-Jazeera, February 26, 2015).
- holding the check risk—a second part of Ankara’s cost calculation is the economic burden of remaining engaged. Erdogan drives a hard bargain with NATO and Washington on financial support for the airport mission because of the rooted belief in Turkey that the West routinely underestimates the direct and indirect costs to Turkey of its military campaigns. The wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya seem to bear this out, with tens of billions of USD lost in disrupted trade and increased security costs (S. Air War College, April 1997; Anadolu Agency, March 14; Ahval News, August 20, 2020). On Afghanistan, NATO has helped indemnify many Turkish expenditures, but domestic support for robust engagement will drop if it is seen as costing Turkey more than it gains. This risk applies both in terms of dollars and diplomacy, so one of Erdogan’s three conditions has been active diplomatic support (tepid to date) from the West.
- overextension risk—the third key risk stems from the fact that Ankara is deeply engaged militarily and diplomatically in many theaters at once: Libya, Syria, and Iraq directly, Ukraine and the Caucasus for broader security cooperation, Africa as a mega-development project, and elsewhere. With Turkey heading for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023, the margin for political risk and unilateral action is slim indeed (Arab News, May 7). If Turkey does not enjoy both Western and Pakistani backing for its role in Kabul, the tacit acceptance of both Kabul and the Taliban, and relative restraint by potential external spoilers, their stabilization project will exceed the means available to implement it. On the other hand, a relatively successful and unchallenged lead role in Kabul and resolution of the Taliban war could work in the favor of Erdogan’s party in the elections.
The American Interest
The question for American policy makers is not whether Turkey should stay or go in Kabul as U.S. forces drawdown. Turkish companies, diplomats, and soldiers are there, have been there for a long time, and are likely to stay, regardless of U.S. support and under all likely battlefield outcomes. The question is whether the balancing strategy outlined above functions as an enabler for multilateral interests with Western support, or remains a purely national effort. For several reasons, it is in the U.S. national interest to provide robust support.
On a practical level, the U.S. ability to administer continuing aid programs and security cooperation (and keep Americans safe while doing so) requires relative security in Kabul and especially at the airport, and the Turkish presence makes those things possible. Turkey’s gatekeeper function in Kabul will improve access for NATO and for the United States, including for businesses, civil society actors, and intelligence professionals. The worst outcomes for U.S. interests—full civil war, breakdown in central authority, Chinese domination—are all less likely if the Turks stay in and the United States provides support. Critics may decry Turkey’s toleration of Afghan warlords, tacit understandings with the Taliban, and self-interested geopolitical angling. Such criticisms are over instrumentalities rather than fundamentals, though. Fundamentally, the United States and Turkey want the same end state at this juncture in Afghanistan’s history: a working economy, de-escalation of violence, preservation of women’s rights and social progress at least in Afghan cities, and a country most Afghans don’t feel compelled to flee. For such a country to emerge, and for something to remain of the American investment of blood and treasure in the Afghan government and people, robust support to the Turks is warranted.
What should that support look like? Financial support (reportedly $130 million from the U.S. and NATO) to the Turkish security mission is a good start. Maintaining Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) systems at the airport and elsewhere in Kabul is another good step (Pajhwok, June 8; Asia Times, July 12). It’s not clear whether the Turks have requested in extremis guarantees for air support and Quick Reaction Forces (QRFs), but it’s not a bad idea as long as the Afghan Ministry of Defense agrees. NATO and the U.S. should provide robust logistical support to Turkish and other international forces for the duration of the mission. But in the larger picture, the strongest support the U.S. can provide is to maintain its 650-man residual advisory mission and $3 billion-plus dollar Afghanistan Security Forces Fund programs in place for the foreseeable future (al-Jazeera, June 25; comptroller.defense.gov, June 1). Afghan forces that are paid and equipped to fight will continue to do so, vicissitudes of each campaign season notwithstanding, and this in turn allows the Turks to continue with the triangulation strategy, which remains possible for a force that is connected to both sides diplomatically and through discrete contact, but not involved in firefights or barrages at its doors.
Ending on a Historical Note
The Taliban could not consolidate power even in the late 1990s, when there was no Afghan Army and little external support for anti-Taliban forces, and are far less likely to do so now. The quite unpopular government of Najibullah survived the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, and only collapsed after the cutoff of Soviet aid and collapse of the Soviet Union (the new Russian Federation cut off aid in 1992, and Najibullah’s government lost Kabul that year). A de facto partition between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and Taliban spheres of control has greater precedent in Afghanistan’s history than the collapse of either side.
The Taliban has had their best spring and summer in over a decade, true. Yet Taliban strength relative to their opponent, the GIRoA, is not demonstrably better than it was 15 years ago, and the contest is more balanced at present than is widely appreciated (Foreign Policy, July 28). As the Taliban gains territory and exposes its forces to contest major population areas and its own losses mount amid GIRoA counterattacks, the momentum it has enjoyed since the U.S. withdrawal announcement may turn out to be transitory (TRT World, July 6; TOLO News, August 4). We may well be several years from the end of the Taliban war—by negotiation or exhaustion—and the best pathway for the West to shape a more favorable outcome runs from Ankara to Kabul.
 Author’s personnel observation during assignment, based on liaison duties in Kabul and extensive conversations with personnel involved in the contacts