Turkey could rise to greater prominence in Afghanistan as trust in the United States' capability to fix the situation in Afghanistan has eroded. Pakistan and Turkey's historical ties means a natural partnership may be on the horizon.
The recent visit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif to Ankara was quite remarkable as the photo ops reflected a departure from protocol. Pictures and meetings with the President are not the norm for visiting foreign ministers. Even if there is a private meeting between a foreign minister and a president, it is not usually advertised.
However, this time in a show of cooperation and alliance, the Turkish President’s meeting with the Pakistani Foreign Minister was made public. Apart from the president, Khawaja Asif also met the prime minister and his counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
This trip was ostensibly a regional tour by the Pakistan government to gather allies after a harsh rebuke by the US President’s new Afghanistan speech. Pakistan is used to taking flak from the United States and being made a scapegoat for American failure in Afghanistan. What is new this time is that unlike previous occasions when Pakistan scuttles to curry favour with the Americans, this time they are looking elsewhere for support, and Turkey tops that list.
So what could Turkey do in Afghanistan that interests Pakistan?
Turkey and Pakistan have always been close allies; there is a historical defence and strategic partnership which peaked in the Turkish-Greek war when Pakistan offered financial and diplomatic support to Ankara.
Recently the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff (COAS) General Qamar Bajwa publicly backed Turkey’s Cyprus stance. Similarly, Turkey has always supported Pakistan’s Kashmir stance and recently even went so far as to support Pakistan on the matter whilst on a state visit to India, much to Delhi’s despair.
Turkey sees its own struggles as similar to Pakistan’s. Both countries host the largest UN refugee programs with millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees respectively. Both countries see themselves caught up in America’s war on terror as front line states. Both militaries see themselves besieged by various terrorist groups, yet asked to do more and doubted as a trustworthy ally.
In facing unprecedented criticism from the Americans and Europeans, both countries are now looking to turn historical and strategic ties into more meaningful action and this trip was seen as a show of intent and purpose towards Afghanistan.
In the last year Turkey-Pakistan ties have taken on a renewed urgency with Turkey even asking the Pakistan Air Force to send F-16 pilots as trainers - a move blocked by the US.
Turkey led NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2005 and way back in 2001, the Turks had proposed to take over the role as the lead for NATO in Afghanistan.
Since the American led operations began in late 2001, Turkey has often been cited as the most successful NATO army in combating all the obstacles put before the alliance in Afghanistan. Turkish military and diplomatic presence is not just lauded but cited as a model of leadership.
On the civilian front, NATO’s most successful senior civilian representative to date has been Hikmet Cetin. Whilst there has been some literature on Turkish operations in Afghanistan there is not much information on potential cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan.
Turkey has not just been a lead and participant in NATO operations in Afghanistan but has also previously mediated the unending Afghanistan Pakistan feuds; there were almost a dozen trilateral summits held in Ankara to talk about border management, the Durand Line, refugees, and the controversial Indian factor.
It is not a secret that Turkey wants to take a leading role in Afghanistan again. Turkey has historically backed the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as well as some of the Turkmen groups. These Turkmen groups also had an uneasy, but steady, alliance with the Taliban throughout the 1990s and are currently neutral in the predominantly Tajik-Pashtun fight for control of the National Unity Government.
As Afghanistan becomes the longest war in US history, there seem to be no answers as to how the Americans can solve the conflict.
Turkey and Pakistan are looking into forming a regional partnership with Russia and Iran to solve the Taliban question. Whilst previously the Taliban were dead opposed to Iran and Russia, now there seems to be a partnership to counter American influence.
Similarly both Pakistan and Turkey realise that Russia is more reliable than the United States when it comes to conflict resolution, especially as seen in the Middle East.
An Iranian, Turkish and Pakistani alliance is in the offing for the first time since the fall of the Shah in 1979. This would also be a continuation of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian negotiated de-escalation zone in Syria. This seems to be the model that Turkey and Pakistan want to work on together in Afghanistan to replicate some of the successes in Syria.
The linkages between terrorist groups on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the Syria-Turkey border are growing and the province of Idlib in northern Syria bordering Turkey has begun to look very much like Afghanistan in the 1990s: chaotic, a hotbed for global terrorists and massive ungoverned spaces which could lead to unintended consequences.
Pakistan knows a thing or two about such consequences after having suffered a decade-long insurgency and dealing with the complexities of being a long term host to refugees.
Turkey is leaning on Pakistan for advice on blowback, curtailing of non-state actors in a war ravaged neighbour and indeed intelligence cooperation to take back weapons provided to former proxies.
Similarly, both think they do not need the United States anymore as both look towards Russia as a more reliable military and diplomatic partner. Turkey could bring the Uzbeks and influential Turkmen to the negotiating table while Pakistan can bring the Taliban and other Pashtun groups hostile to Kabul to form a proper alliance.
As the national unity government in Kabul continues to fail—and no American band-aid can fix Afghanistan—it will be left to regional countries such as Iran, Pakistan and a reenergised Turkey to renter the Afghan fray.
However, what differentiates Turkey from Pakistan and Iran is the fact that for once the United States and NATO member countries have been unison in their praise of Turkey’s role to stabilise Afghanistan – and this can only be a good thing.
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