Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process: Turkey’s Role in Afghanistan
June 30, 2021
The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) had a Panel Discussion on ‘Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process: Turkey’s Role in Afghanistan’ which is the first in a series of conversations CAMEA will be having on Afghanistan – under its Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process series.
The distinguished speakers included: Ambassador Haroon Shaukat, Former Ambassador of Pakistan to Turkey; Dr. Merve Seren, Assistant Professor at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Department of International Relations; Dr. Zalmai Nishat, Researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS); Dr. Salim Cevik – Researcher at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) and Dr. Murat Aslan, SETA Security Researcher and Faculty Member of Hasan Kalyoncu University (Turkey). Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Director General, ISSI also took part in the discussion.
Mr. Muhammad Yaseen, Research Associate at CAMEA gave a brief presentation on Turkey’s role in Afghanistan.
During her opening remarks, Ms. Amina Khan, Director CAMEA, said that perplexed by instability in Afghanistan, there is a realization within the region that geopolitical dynamics are not what they used to be, new and multiple actors that have taken centre stage and strategic rivalries over and in Afghanistan have increased. There is a realization that they no longer can stay on the sidelines, nor depend on the international community, but rather it is time for regional ownership. One such country is Turkey, which has played a substantive role in Afghanistan such as its role in NATO, Istanbul Process or Turkey’s developmental assistance to Afghanistan. In light of the recent announcement by the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by July 2021, President Erdogan said that Turkey was seeking Pakistan and Hungary’s involvement in the security of Kabul airport after the withdrawal of foreign troops.While there is talk of this proposed mechanism, the modalities of this mechanism remain unclear. While the whole world closely follows the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan along with the rather hasty withdrawal of foreign forces, that too in the absence of an intra-Afghan negotiated settlement, the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain to say the least.
Ambassador Chaudhry said that an unstable Afghanistan would not only be a nightmare for the whole region but more so for Pakistan. He said that the people of Pakistan unanimously advocate for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, believe that there is no military solution and instead the best chance for peace in Afghanistan is through a political process which unfortunately is at a stalemate currently. Regarding Turkey’s role in Afghanistan, he said that Turkey is a respected name in Afghanistan and has not only been helping Afghanistan through political means such as by hosting various trilaterals aimed at starting a sustainable peace process but by also being a viable economic development partner to the country.
Ambassador Haroon Shaukat said that Turkey has evolved itself into a reconstruction and capacity building role in Afghanistan. The important question is how to bring the Afghan factions to the point where they can be convinced for peace talks. Turkey has an advantage of being at a distance in terms of geography and so does not have the same baggage that Pakistan has to face due to geographical proximity. Turkey can work with regional neighbours and global powers to help the Afghans reach the objectives of the peace agreement. There is currently a two pronged problem, the first is to bring the Afghan factions in harmony and the second is to bring in neighbouring countries to officially take part in the process instead of merely backing their respective faction.
Dr. Merve Seren said that the US will never leave Afghanistan because that means giving space to China and Russia to an energy rich country with mineral value. Turkey’s presence in Kabul is also important for a lot of international organizations present in Kabul. However notwithstanding this, Turkey’s exact role needs to be further clarified. It can act as an economic, diplomatic and social supplement in Afghanistan. Turkey’s existence in Afghanistan needs to be legitimized through a UN Resolution and the Afghan government needs to make Turkey’s presence official as well through government channels. She also said that the Kabul airport is the heartland of Kabul and Kabul is the heartland of Afghanistan, hence it is important.
Dr. Zalmai Nishat said that the depth of the Turkish-Afghanistan can be seen in Turkey’s multifaceted role over the years which has also included assistance in health, education and social development. He foresaw a large Turkish role in Afghanistan. First in internal consensus building among Afghanistan’s multi ethnic populace and second in regional consensus building. He said that nation building in Afghanistan is not as strong as compared to Turkey. Attempts for reconciliation have existed for a decade but the Taliban either refused to sit with the Kabul government calling them puppets of the US or demanded direct talks with the US. A post withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan is yet to take shape, he said. It needs to be analysed how the Taliban are so successful in Afghanistan with only around 15 percent public support. In this regard, the role of neighbouring countries is very important, he said.
Dr. Salim Cevik said that Turkey has remained as a non-combat force and relied on its economic, cultural, health and educational contributions. Unlike colonial powers, Turkey has always treated the Afghan people as equal. Any negotiations will see Turkey taking substantial risks. As long as the Taliban agree to a Turkish role, only then can Turkey play a part. On the question of whether there will be a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said there will not be a complete withdrawal. For instance, there will also remain some forces in Kabul airport to assist Turkish forces and provide security. On the question of China and Russia’s role in Afghanistan with regards to Turkey he said that there will be simultaneous competition and cooperation. Here he cited an example of Turkey and Russia in Libya and Syria.
Dr. Murat Aslan said that Turkey’s policies in Afghanistan are based on a shared interest policy opposed to one based on self-interest. Afghanistan interests lie in a peaceful stable country in order for any development project to be realised. Likewise for Turkey, there needs first and foremost there must be a consensus in Afghanistan in order to embark on any prosperity projects in Afghanistan in the future. Afghans should talk and build consus on how to proceed in post withdrawal. Merely a security oriented approach regarding the Kabul airport is not enough.