Turkey's Role in Afghanistan | Opinion

The relationship between Afghanistan and the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey is rooted in history, with adequate relations during the 20th century.

Following the fall of the Taliban government, Turkey, as the most prominent Muslim-majority member of NATO, considered its national interests and sent its troops to Afghanistan in 2001. Ankara also sought to expand its influence in the country, taking into account various political, economic, security and cultural considerations.

Two elements of Afghanistan's society—the Sunni religious majority and the Turkish-speaking minority (Uzbeks and Turkmen) are of importance to Turkey. Turkey has always paid attention to the Turkish-speaking minority in Afghanistan, supporting them, especially when it came to former Vice President of Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Establishing Afghan-Turkish schools, expanding the number of Turkish scholarships, staff training, cultural consulting, growing the presence of the Younes Amre Foundation, broadcasting Turkish shows and movies and teaching the Turkish language all play an important role in increasing Turkey's soft power, especially in Afghanistan's Turkish speaking regions.

In another dimension, apart from a strategic agreement between the two countries in recent years, the levels of diplomatic and strategic cooperation between them increased. At the political level, Ankara seems to have sought to pursue its political goals in Afghanistan by bringing parties such as the Jamiat-e Islami Party closer in relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey communicates with Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups, through the opening of a Consulate General in Herat and the opening of a consulate in Kandahar, while having contact with the Taliban, the Jamiat-e Islami Party of Afghanistan and Hezbi Islami.

Over the past decade, Turkey hosted several important conferences on Afghanistan. In addition to holding trilateral meetings between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey, and mediating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ankara wants to act as the host and mediator of the Afghan government's peace talks with the Taliban. Turkey seems to be more active in Afghanistan with the support of Europe and the United States. As such, Ankara is working to host the Istanbul Peace Conference and tries to keep alive the heart of Asia-Istanbul relations and Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral talks.

Ankara has not invested heavily in Afghanistan's economic sectors compared to other key players but has sought to meet international conference commitments, increase investment, pave the way for the Lapis Lazuli corridor and rebuild the economy as an opportunity to expand its influence.

Mural depicting an Afghan National Army soldier
A burqa-clad woman and a girl walk past a mural depicting an Afghan National Army soldier, in Kabul on June 10, 2021. ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images

In the military and security sphere, Turkey has sought to further develop a program to assist the training of Afghan military and police officers, providing them with scholarships. Ankara's goals include maintaining political stability, strengthening existing political structures and institutions, implementing peace and eliminating terrorism and extremism. Turkey has sought to play a more prominent role in Afghanistan, especially as U.S. troops gear up to exit in September. Presence in the form of peacekeeping forces, and the protection and management of Kabul's airport, are desirable for Turkey.

There are two general perspectives within Afghanistan on increasing Turkey's role in the country. Defenders emphasize religious commonalities, Ankara's ability to improve economic and educational conditions, neutrality in internal affairs, Turkey's role in NATO and shadowing Turkey's political system.

Opponents of Ankara's role in Afghanistan believe that Turkey's aspirations to lead Pan-Turkism, its attempt to secularize society and the dissatisfaction by regional rivals are not in Afghanistan's interests. Despite Ankara's efforts, the Taliban still do not have a positive view of Turkey's role in the country.

Nonetheless, Turkey continues its efforts to gain the support of Europe, the United States and NATO for a greater political and security presence in Afghanistan. Other influential actors such as India, China and Russia see the expansion of Turkey's comprehensive presence in the region as detrimental to their strategic interests.

The future of Turkey's role in Afghanistan depends on a number of internal variables, most importantly the structure of Kabul's government. There are no common views on the expansion of Turkey's role in the country among the government and the Abdullah Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani factions.

Although some welcome Turkey's greater presence and role in the country, and the increase of Turkey's economic and mediator role in Afghanistan, there is a wider opposition to Turkey's military presence.

It can be assumed that Turkey will play a greater economic, diplomatic and political role in Afghanistan in the future, but this role may never go beyond military aspirations.

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh is a senior researcher and analyst of international affairs.

Zahra Darbandsari is a senior researcher and analyst of international affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.