Turkey's role in Afghanistan is increasingly expanding and could help facilitate talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It could also likely succeed where others have failed.

On January 14, Afghan government representatives and officials from the Taliban’s Qatar office met in Turkey to discuss mechanisms for initiating a peace process in Afghanistan. These talks occurred in tandem with United Nations (UN)-backed peace efforts in Kabul, and underscored Turkey’s commitment to facilitating dialogue between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s supporters and the Taliban.

Turkey’s willingness to mediate between conflicting factions in Afghanistan can be explained by historical legacies and Ankara’s broader geopolitical aspirations.

Afghanistan was the second country to recognize the new Turkish Republic after the Soviet Union, forging a Treaty of Friendship with Turkey in 1921. Turkish policymakers have viewed political turmoil in Afghanistan with an exceptional degree of concern since then.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s December 2015 statement that “Afghanistan’s problems are our problems, and their success is our success,” highlighted the sense of historic responsibility that has inspired Turkey’s efforts to facilitate the stabilisation of Afghanistan.

While contributing to the resolution of the war in Afghanistan would undoubtedly constitute the fulfillment of a historic mission, Turkey’s expanded mediation role is also closely linked with its alliance-building objectives in the wider Middle East and the post-Soviet region in Central Asia. In particular, Turkey’s efforts to pressure NATO to accept an all-inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan could help strengthen Ankara’s growing alliance with Qatar and Russia.  

As Qatar has advocated negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government since 2012, Turkey’s decision in mid-January to invite senior Taliban officials for an unofficial dialogue on Afghanistan’s political future and bilateral talks between Turkey and Afghanistan in 2010 on the establishment a Taliban office in Ankara strikingly resemble Doha’s position. Expanded cooperation with Qatar could help Ankara convert its tactical alignment with Doha against the Saudi-led blockade and Syria's leader Bashar al Assad, into a diplomatic partnership that extends beyond the Middle Eastern context for the first time.

Qatar’s extensive experience negotiating with the Taliban could also help Turkey separate moderates from hardliners as it attempts to bring the Taliban to the bargaining table.

Turkey’s relationship with Russia could also improve if Ankara deepens its involvement in Afghanistan, as the Kremlin has worked assiduously to devise an all-inclusive political resolution to the conflict. To underscore this commitment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that the Afghanistan war cannot be resolved without the Taliban’s participation in a coalition government.

Turkey’s attempts to convince Central Asian states, like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to soften their long-standing opposition to diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban aligns closely with Russia’s calls for diplomatic engagement with all Afghan political factions and has gained positive feedback in Moscow. Even though both countries have historically conflicting foreign policy agendas during international crises, this synergy demonstrates the potential for Russia-Turkey cooperation to extend beyond the limited confines of the Syrian conflict.

Turkey was active, but not as a fighting force, in NATO missions in Afghanistan. For instance, with the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in 2001 Turkey’s role was to economically develop and rebuild Afghanistan. In 2007, the then Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was walking in the Kabul streets without a body armour/steel vest.

While these alliance-building objectives and sense of historical responsibility in Afghanistan explain Turkey’s interest in resolving the conflict, Turkey also possesses a unique set of geopolitical advantages over other regional powers that allow it to convert its aspirations for influence into successful diplomatic ventures. In particular, Turkey possesses close relations with a diverse array of Afghan political factions that need to be incorporated into a lasting peace settlement.

The Turkish government has won favor with President Ghani by investing $1 billion in economic development projects in Afghanistan, which have strengthened Afghanistan’s infrastructure and education systems. Ghani has rewarded Turkey for its high-risk investments in the Afghan economy, by cracking down on Gulenist FETO schools, further strengthening the Kabul-Ankara partnership.

Despite this co-operation, Turkey has drawn red lines in its alliance with Ghani, and these constraints have strengthened its relationship with Afghan opposition factions. After Afghanistan’s Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, was charged with assault in last May, Turkey gave Dostum asylum and helped him forge alliances with Ata Mohammad Noor, the leader of the northern Balkh province and Mohammed Mohaqiq, a deputy to Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

This diplomatic intervention pressured Ghani to reincorporate Dostum into the political fold. These initiatives have proven successful as Dostum is widely expected to return to Afghanistan in the coming months. If Dostum returns due to Turkish political pressure, Turkey’s stature as a political actor in Afghanistan will increase significantly, and Ankara will be able to strengthen its ties with Dostum’s Uzbek allies in northern Afghanistan.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, an influential Pashtun power-broker, is another likely advocate of an expanded Turkish diplomatic role in Afghanistan, as he enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of establishing a Taliban office in Turkey while he was president. If Turkey can establish a cross-sectarian coalition in Afghanistan, Turkish mediation efforts are more likely to gain support from moderate Taliban members seeking to maximise their interests in a political settlement.

The Turkish government’s multi-track diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan have been strengthened further by Ankara’s long-standing policy of maintaining favourable relations with both Kabul and Islamabad.

The collapse of Ghani’s normalisation with Pakistan in 2015 exacerbated instability in Afghanistan, as it has restricted Kabul’s ability to engage with militant groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, that have historically close ties with Pakistan.  

In recent months, Turkey has used its diplomatic outreach with Pakistan to reverse this negative trajectory. On September 12, Erdogan held a landmark meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif to discuss the resolution of the war in Afghanistan. During their meeting, Asif praised Turkey’s efforts to push for a diplomatic solution to the Afghanistan war, and rejected the United States’ efforts to defeat the Taliban through purely military means. The cordial nature of the Asif-Erdogan meeting suggests that Pakistan could be receptive to a Turkish-led mediation initiative between Kabul and Islamabad, as Ankara is regarded by both sides as an impartial arbiter that is willing to act constructively in the interests of peace.

Even though Turkey’s mediation efforts in Afghanistan have developed largely under the radar of international media outlets, Ankara’s long-standing desire to resolve the Afghan conflict, alliance-building objectives and unique diplomatic advantages ensure that Turkish policymakers are likely to expand their involvement in Afghanistan in the months to come.

If the Turkish government can facilitate a reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey’s ability to engage the Taliban and other anti-government factions in Afghanistan will grow significantly, consolidating Turkey’s position as an indispensable stakeholder in Afghanistan’s seemingly intractable conflict.

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