Friend or foe? Redefining Turkey's Afghanistan Policy Outside NATO


Turkish President Erdogan, otherwise a friend of many and often harsh words, needed almost a week before he took a stand on the Taliban's takeover of Kabul. While the topic has occupied the Turkish media just as much as the German media in recent days, the Turkish government is trying to wait for the consolidation of the change of power.

Erdoğans spricht beim Statesman’s Forum im Mai 2013

Turkey finds itself in a volatile situation that it would like to turn to its own advantage: on the one hand, Turkish troops were part of the ISAF mission, on the other, it would like to keep diplomatic channels with the Taliban open. This includes not wanting to be lumped together with the withdrawing European and American troops - the Turkish foreign ministry confidently announced that the embassy had been moved to the airport, but that there were no plans to close the representation.

Consolidating Turkey's growing independence

Before the Taliban overran Kabul, Ankara had believed it could define a new role in Afghanistan in line with its increasingly independent foreign policy in recent years. The fact that last year Istanbul was considered as the venue for the peace talks, which then collapsed, was already a gain for Turkey. Only a few months ago, it had begun negotiating with the US government for the Turkish military to take over the security of Kabul airport from its US counterparts.

The plan, if realized, would have allowed two things: to polish up the battered relationship with the US and to show that Turkey's growing independence outside the NATO alliance nevertheless has benefits for the alliance. For years, Turkey has repeatedly promoted in Afghanistan that because of its shared Islamic roots, Turkey has an inherent advantage over other "Western" players. However, Ankara has already discovered that this simplistic labeling does not necessarily impress jihadist actors with IS in Syria and ash-Shabab in Somalia.

Turkey and Afghanistan: brothers in faith and foreign policy?

The cold shoulder that the Taliban first gave Turkey makes it clear that it is also unclear in Afghanistan whether this plan will work. The Taliban first voiced criticism and demanded a troop withdrawal by September. But in view of the current "charm offensive" against the international community, they have rowed back: Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Turkish broadcaster Ahaber just this week that they wanted to get along well with Turkey, saying the countries were brothers in faith after all. Even if many Turks this interpretation in the social media under the hashtag #TalibanKardesimDegildir (The Taliban are not my brother), it cannot be denied that the Turkish leadership is trying to make the best of the difficult situation. President Erdogan therefore also maintains that Turkey will continue to manage Kabul airport. This is only likely if the Taliban agree. But if Ankara succeeds in assuming the desired mediator position, Turkey's foreign policy reputation in Washington and Brussels, which has recently been very tarnished, could grow again.

Ankara's interest in maintaining prosperous relations with Kabul therefore appears strong. The strong ties Turkey has with Pakistan could promote this. Turkey has been betting on several directions: it is using its strong ties in Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors to build networks, for example, it evacuated the Afghan foreign minister and intelligence chief to Istanbul, and at the same time it hopes that warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with whom there are close, even personal, contacts, can once again play a role in an Afghan government.

"The border is (our) honor": Afghan refugees in Turkey

The real concern in Turkey is about possible refugees from Afghanistan going to Turkey. For weeks, long before the fall of Kabul, the media has been discussing the fact that more and more Afghans are being encountered on the Turkish side of the border with Iran. Television images of groups of people coming down hills undisturbed and making their way along country roads have led to heated discussions in the country.

Turkey, which has taken in four million refugees from Syria, has been struggling with an economic crisis for more than two years - inflation and unemployment are at record levels. Anger over the government's policies on Syrian refugees, which were already not particularly popular, is increasingly breaking out in violent ways amid the poor economic situation. Opposition politicians have identified the issue as suitable for an election campaign, especially the largest opposition party, the CHP, is stirring up sentiment against Syrians and Afghans and proclaiming "the border is (our) honour".

Accordingly, the government was in a hurry to make it clear that Turkey is not willing to do the same with Afghans as with Syrian refugees. Ankara vehemently rejects the EU's attempt to include Afghan refugees in the third package of the EU-Turkey Statement, which is currently being renegotiated. Several politicians have publicly stated that Turkey is not the refugee camp of the Europeans.

Long ago, the government began fortifying the Iranian-Turkish border in the same way as the Syrian border. A wall several meters high now stretches across the hills there. But people are still crossing into the country. The area, where smuggling has been a major industry since the republic was founded and the new borders drawn in 1923, is difficult to control. Bribes to border officials are said to be quite common, say those in the know. As little as $800 to $1500 will get you across the border.

How high the numbers of new arrivals are is indeed difficult to say. The Turkish government is keeping a low profile. Some observers say migration from Afghanistan is nothing new; just last year, 61 Afghans drowned when their boat sank on eastern Anatolia's Lake Van, which refugees cross on their way west to avoid police checks on land. Not all individuals appear to be motivated to do so by the current Taliban advance, with some individuals also reporting that they had been holding out in Iran for some time until an opportune moment to cross the border presented itself. While numbers were down last year because of Corona, some observers suspect they will now simply rise again to pre-Corona levels. The crossing of Iran takes - depending on the controls - about ten days for the refugees - whether Iranian authorities are interested in stopping people who intend to leave the country quickly again in the direction of Turkey is doubted by the Turkish side. Possible flight movements caused by the capture of Kabul would therefore only be registered in Turkey with a delay.

Turkey as a destination for Afghan refugees

Turkey's fear is also that this time for many Afghans there is no plan at all to continue the journey to Europe. Even in the years before the economic crisis, Turkey was a destination rather than a transit country for many Afghans, because when the Turkish economy was still humming, it was easy to find informal work, especially in the boom sector of the construction industry. While these opportunities have greatly diminished, at the same time many migrants and refugees also know that the path to the EU is expensive and difficult since the external borders have become increasingly militarized.

After Syrians, Afghans are the second largest group of migrants and refugees in the country. Although no official figures are available, estimates put the number of Afghans at up to 500,000, most of whom are believed to be in the greater Istanbul area. As Turkey has entered a regional reservation with the UN Refugee Convention, it is not possible for non-Europeans to apply for asylum in Turkey, it is only possible to be registered by the UNHCR for the purpose of resettlement in a host third country. Due to the steadily increasing group of Syrians who have fled since 2011 and pressure from the international community, the asylum law was reformed in 2014 and has since offered subsidiary protection status to Syrians, which largely protects them from deportation and allows access to the health and education sectors, and since 2016, the formal labour market. Since Afghans are not granted this status, most live unregistered in illegality as day laborers. This limbo, the Turkish government hopes, will make it easier for Afghans to leave the country. Since this does not often happen voluntarily, Turkey has in recent years repeatedly deported large groups to Afghanistan or, in some cases, illegally to Iran.

In addition to the geopolitical dimension, it is therefore also a priority for Ankara to maintain contact with Kabul for reasons of migration prevention. The Erdogan government, which is already under heavy criticism, does not want to afford itself another open flank against the opposition with possible Afghan refugees.


Kristian Brakel is head of the Istanbul office.