Saturday September 25, 2021

Turkey eyeing for new sphere of influence in Afghanistan

July 26, 2021
Turkey eyeing for new sphere of influence in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is all set for a new geopolitical game and is bracing for the advent of a new player, Turkey with the latter's grand potential ambitions and practices in West Asia.

Turkey has taken upon the task to secure Kabul Airport with the explicit backing of America despite the strong opposition of Taliban. While Ankara wants to secure Kabul Airport, behind this move there is an agenda: It seeks to create a new role for its strategic ambitions in West Asia and for which the place and geography is north of Afghanistan. Here is how.

Ankara has set out to incorporate Afghanistan in its "sphere of influence" potentially eying to roll out its influence into a new region stretching from Kabul to the borders of Central Asian states.

The contour of this ambition is the equivalence of strategic gaze fixed on a new region called "Southern Turkistan''. It came into light recently when some prominent pro-Turkish Uzbek elders urged the Taliban to give them an adequate share in power or else they would demand a new region named as "Southern Turkistan'' comprising north of Afghanistan with Kabul it's Capital. Without mincing words, Hikmet Cetin, Turkey’s former deputy prime minister and Nato’s former senior civilian representative for Afghanistan, says "Turkey has historical and moral responsibility to play a role in Afghanistan".

Since Turkey has a strong cultural and historical affinity with Turkic origin Afghan communities and Uzbek leader and warlord Gen Rashid Dostum is its closed proxy, the post-US Afghanistan offers a tempting opportunity for Ankara's strategic thinkers and practitioners to expand influence and project power.

The Turkish impending role in Afghanistan comes after Ankara's newly-gained confidence encapsulated in its robust successful expansionary strategic interventions in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Azerbaijan. Turkey is successful in employing levers across strategic, technological and tactical domains. For example, it has created its proxy non-state militias which it used in Idlib–Syria, Libya, Iraq and now plans to move to Afghanistan.

The US has already acquiesced to Ankara's demand whoever it wants to enlist in the protection of Kabul Airport including presumably its non-state militias out in Syria; in Afghanistan, it is already invested in Rashid Dostum and hence his private militia which is a ready force to be deployed wherever it deems fit. Then its suicide drone technology tipped the balance in favour of Azerbaijan in the latter's war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region.

With the thaw in relations with the US, stabilising the situation in its engagements in Syria, Libya and Iraq, Turkey is all prepared to unroll its game plan in Afghanistan. Here is how its mechanic will play out. Going forward, the Taliban in the wake of battlefield victories will unlikely give into maximalist demands by the present elements of the Kabul regime (including Rashid Dostum) who they consider as post 9/11 US proxies and a spent force leading to a potential stalemate. In other words, the Taliban's dialogue is linked with their preconceived mental framework i.e. not to concede a dominant role in power-sharing to the politicians monopolising Afghan state structure for the last two decades. It will snowball the two parties into a stalemate-like situation. The stalemate will coincide with no functioning government and as such all groups will be forced to rely on the use of militias.

This worse-case eventuality will morph into a bigger engagement for Turkey. Since it would be the only foreign but "resident" country in Afghanistan with its formidable military and strategic prowess, Ankara would have notionally carved the country in two halves, the north and the south. With Kabul as a capital, Turkey would seek a de facto "Southern Turkistan region'' indirectly managing the trade and border posts from Iran to CARs states to China. The Taliban will likely be pushed to the southern and western parts of Afghanistan as they would be denied tactical capture of important cities in the north by Turkey's air power.

Additionally, a contributing factor is the Kabul regime's balance of power being least sufficient to prevent the north of Afghanistan from falling into the Turkish strategic lap. The US is already realigned with Turkey's likely expanded role in Afghanistan. The last thing Washington wants is an Afghanistan hosting Chinese BRI/CPEC project and turning into a connectivity hub ultimately benefiting Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Beijing.

The whole potential geopolitical division of Afghanistan with mounting footprints of Turkey will likely employ the end of classic strategy–proxy warfare by all main players. The net outcome will surely be a civil war, Syrianisation of Afghanistan; even worse, geopolitics which have always been cold, calculated and ruthless, will heat up a notch with warfare technology this time around.

Turkey’s potentially expanded “sphere of influence” will likely set alarm bells in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan. This scenario will tempt GCC countries and Pakistan, in particular, to push back and mount across-domain counter-strategy. Notwithstanding, the Taliban strong opposition to any such eventuality, they have already signalled against any explicit Turkish role.

Regional countries, Iran, China and Russia having direct legitimate security interests in Afghanistan, will be watching Turkey's moves with suspicion, which could implicate their national security at some point in time. Since they have the highest stakes in the peace and stability of Afghanistan, the competing geopolitical interests and the imperatives of shared borders of these countries are at cross purposes with Turkey's ambitions and impending practices in West Asia. This will make conflict in Afghanistan inevitable.

Thus they will soon be scrambling for intervention to preempt Turkey's possible strategic foray into Afghanistan. And if Turkey creates an environment that leads to the notional or virtual division of the country along the line of "Southern Turkistan" and residual southern Afghanistan, it will certainly be a massive display of weakness of the geopolitical standing of bordering nations including Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in the immediate domestic situation of Afghanistan, Islamabad is facing a degree of pressure from the US to convince the Taliban for a Turkish role in securing Kabul Airport. A US diplomat in Islamabad put it succinctly: "Somebody has to guard that airport; it's got [to] happen or all the diplomatic missions will leave; (the) Taliban will accept it in the end because they don't want a mass exodus from Kabul". And Ankara wants to leverage its relationship with Pakistan (besides Qatar) to bridge between the Taliban and Turkey for a Turkish role in Kabul.

But Pakistan needs a two-pronged balancing act: first, tactically it has to eschew more pressure on the Taliban for the US/Turkish goal (Turkish deployment at the Airport). And second, Islamabad ought to avoid contributing (by default) to enacting any possible outcome of Turkey's grand ambition of "South Turkistan" in Afghanistan.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai