What Card is Washington Playing in Afghanistan via Ankara?

Vladimir Danilov
TUR954233Despite the intense debate that has been going on in Turkey and beyond over the last few days about the advisability of Ankara taking over the baton from the USA in Afghanistan, as well as the main intrigue – what it will do in the IRA, President Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed the other day that Turkey was ready “to take over the Kabul Airport if the United States provides the necessary support.”

But it should be recalled that Turkey is not a neighbor of Afghanistan. Therefore, any action in that country, given the withdrawal of US and NATO troops by September, would require at least logistic support from a country in the region. Clearly, for these purposes, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on June 17 that a Turkish military base could appear in the territory of Azerbaijan in line with the Shusha Declaration he signed the day before. But it seems that Ankara (or rather Washington via Ankara) is pursuing similar goals hoping to establish similar military bases in the countries of Central Asia by activating the Turkish regional military cooperation.

In this regard, it’s worth remembering similar “logistic support” for its actions in Afghanistan Washington has repeatedly tried to involve the countries of Central Asia in. Still, all such steps failed because of the negative attitude of Russia and China to such a regional military expansion of the United States.

Therefore, in the circumstances outlined, Washington frankly hopes that Turkey will be able to obtain such “logistic support.” Particularly since it has begun to actively develop cooperation with all the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia during the recent years in coordination with Washington, using their interest in forming their national identity, strategic and economic autonomy, and modernizing their infrastructure.

It is no secret that Ankara has recently succeeded in enclosing the countries of the region to a certain extent in most of these areas, pushing Russia and China into the background, which traditionally have influence in this region. To this end, Ankara is putting a lot of effort and resources trying to pull the new sovereign countries of the region under the auspices of Turkey, constantly holding summits of Turkic states, which exploit the idea, including the military unity to create a kind of “Turkic NATO” or the so-called “Turan Army.”

All this Pan-Turkism activity, given the separatist damage it could do to Russia and China, and the substitution of their regional influence by a “NATO proxy,” has been blatantly supported by Washington for the last thirty years as part of the “West-East” confrontation. Hence Ankara’s confidence in the infallibility of its neo-Ottoman aspirations, as well as its belief that Eurasian regional and continental security (including Southeastern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Near East and the Middle East, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) is entrusted to Turkey by Washington and the West in general, and its policies will therefore be only supported.

Although Turkey’s financial capabilities are not comparable to those of the USA, China, or Russia, it actively uses “soft power” in Central Asia, primarily in developing cultural, humanitarian, and economic ties through educational institutions, business structures, and international organizations (the Turkic Council, TIKA, TURKSOY, etc.). In addition to mainly humanitarian programs, Turkey also invests in military and technical assistance to countries in the region. For example, Turkey provides grants for students from Central Asia, offers the countries of the region military equipment, free training for military personnel and law enforcement officers, and the joint production of some weapons.

In addition, Ankara has repeatedly tried to involve Central Asian countries in its foreign policy in other regions. For example, during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Erdoğan actively urged the Central Asian member states of the Cooperation Council of Turkic- Speaking States (CCTS), also called the Turkic Council, to support Baku. Also noteworthy was Erdogan’s appeal in May for Kyrgyzstan to show solidarity against Israel in Turkey’s struggle to defend Palestine. “I had a phone conversation with the president of Kyrgyzstan and expressed my desire to see his country join us in our initiatives on the international stage to teach Israel a lesson in attacking the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Gaza Strip and the Palestinians,” Erdogan wrote in a Telegram channel.

However, the Central Asian region has responded to such active Turkish expansion with increasing restraint. This is confirmed, in particular, by the growing criticism of Turkey’s demands to close Fethullah Gülen schools in the Central Asian republics and to extradite his supporters, as well as the recent abduction of Orhan Inandi by the Turkish security services in Kyrgyzstan violating all international norms. These actions by Ankara, especially the abduction of Orhan Inandi, have already been a wake-up call for other Central Asian countries, showing the unflattering aspect of Turkey’s “soft but tough” power.

Therefore, Erdoğan’s desire to solve his problems through direct pressure has already begun to create cracks in relations with Central Asian countries and alienate them from Turkey. This is why Turkey’s ambitious plans for resolving the situation in Afghanistan, announced by Erdoğan in a recent meeting with US President Joe Biden, have not yet found support in the countries of the region. Especially since Suhail Shaheen, Taliban spokesman (a movement banned in the Russian Federation), has clearly stated that any foreign soldiers who remain in Afghanistan after September will be treated as hostile occupying forces. In these circumstances, by supporting such initiatives of Erdoğan to “take over the Kabul airport” using the Turkish military, the Central Asian countries will inevitably draw the Taliban’s wrath and completely unnecessary aggression if they provide their territory as “logistic” support.

This is why the ideas of pan-Turkism and Turkic solidarity promoted by Ankara and personally by President Erdoğan, although popular in the countries of Central Asia, are perceived only as one of the possible vectors of development. All Central Asian countries pursue a so-called “multi-vector foreign policy,” which is to develop cooperation not only with Turkey but also with Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union. And the Central Asian countries clearly do not want to risk their security against the threat of the Taliban and several terrorist groups entrenched in Afghanistan, nor do they want to support Erdoğan’s adventure to “manage Kabul Airport.”