Fehim Tastekin « Washington’s Afghan plan diplomatic godsend for Ankara »

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AL-MONITOR, Mar 15, 2021

US President Joe Biden is still keeping his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan waiting for a phone call, but Washington has recently cheered Ankara up by casting a role for Turkey in peace efforts in Afghanistan.

A US plan for Turkey to host a meeting to finalize a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban is not an unlikely choice, as Turkey is the sole Muslim-majority member of NATO, which maintains a military mission in Afghanistan. As such, Turkey’s possible mediation might prove more effective than that of Qatar. But given the chill between the Biden administration and Ankara, the US move could be seen also as a gesture of goodwill or an attempt at mending a damaged partnership.

A US-Taliban deal, signed in February 2020 under the Donald Trump administration, requires all American troops to leave Afghanistan by May 1, but the Biden administration is still weighing its options on how to proceed. At this critical junction, Washington has called for an international meeting under UN auspices, intra-Afghan talks in Turkey and a 90-day reduction-in-violence in Afghanistan, hoping to muster utmost international support for peace in the war-torn country. During talks in Kabul in early March, US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad shared a settlement draft that calls for a new, interim administration until a new constitution is agreed upon and elections held, while a joint commission monitors a cease-fire, according to Reuters.

Since last year’s deal, the Afghan government and the Taliban have mutually released thousands of prisoners, while Washington has downsized its troops to 2,500. Intra-Afghan peace talks began in Doha in September, but have since stalled without any real progress. To continue the talks, the Taliban have called for the release of 7,500 prisoners and the removal of their leaders from international blacklists. And while Kabul wants to negotiate a cease-fire first, the Taliban say a deal on interim power-sharing should precede the truce. Moreover, the Taliban insist on replacing the existing “Islamic republic” with an “Islamic emirate.” 

In a bid to unlock the stalemate, Russia invited the Afghan parties as well as representatives of the United States, China and Pakistan to a meeting in Moscow on March 18.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani outlining a number of initiatives toward a settlement. “We will ask the government of Turkey to host a senior-level meeting of both sides in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter published by the Afghan news site TOLOnews. 

Ankara hailed the proposal as a recognition of its diplomatic clout and acumen. “We are ready to assume any mediation that would contribute to peace in Afghanistan,” Omer Celik, the spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, said March 9. Turkey, however, does not figure among the participants of the UN-sponsored meeting proposed in Blinken’s letter, which include Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India, along with the United States. 

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey was planning to host the meeting in April in Istanbul, stressing that both Afghan sides had previously welcomed the idea of Turkish mediation. Turkey will coordinate the meeting with Qatar and appoint a special Afghanistan envoy, he said March 12.

Afghan scholar and writer Aqa Mohammad Qurishi told Al-Monitor that neither Kabul nor the Taliban are likely to object to a Turkish role in the peace process, given Turkey’s traditional friendship with Afghanistan as wells as Ankara’s “great relations” with both the current Afghan government and Pakistan, an “important ally” of the Taliban. “Turkey has not been involved in the Afghan war and has been impartial,” he stressed.

Yet a Turkish role alone could hardly break the current deadlock in the talks, Qurishi said, stressing the need for pressure by the Biden administration, regional cooperation and the acceptance of UN mediation by all parties. The Afghan government, he noted, is explicitly opposed to the formation of an interim administration and advocates power sharing through specific, inclusive mechanisms after a peace deal is reached.

Turkey has failed to acquire an influential role in the Afghan peace talks thus far, even though it has made notable contributions to Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and is directly affected by the fallout of the war, lying on the route of Afghan refugees fleeing to the West. 

Ankara has stayed on good terms with Kabul, but at the same time, it has not allowed its role in the NATO mission to fan enmity with the Taliban. Yet Ankara lacks strong channels with the Taliban, which might diminish its mediation edge. This weakness owes not to Turkey’s military presence in Afghanistan or Ankara’s reluctance to cultivate ties with the Taliban, but Kabul’s efforts to prevent moves legitimizing the insurgents. Reports of a planned Taliban office in Turkey have occasionally hit the media since 2011, followed by official denials

Back in 2001, Turkey refused to send combat troops to Afghanistan despite US pressure, assuming only noncombat tasks in the NATO mission. This decision as well as Turkey’s traditionally close ties with Pakistan, the Taliban’s main benefactor, have allowed it to avoid the enmity of the Taliban. 

What is more, Turkish-Afghan relations are deeply rooted in history. The Afghan people sent money to support the Turkish liberation war after the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I. Afghanistan was the first nation to recognize the Turkish parliament, established in Ankara in 1920 in defiance of the Ottoman monarchy in Istanbul, and the second after the Soviet Union to recognize the modern Turkish republic proclaimed three years later. Meanwhile, a Turkish embassy was inaugurated in Kabul, becoming the first foreign mission in the city. In 1928, Afghan ruler Amanullah Khan became the first foreign head of the state to visit the young Turkish republic, while many Turkish teachers, doctors and military officers helped the establishment of modern institutions in Afghanistan over three decades until 1960. 

Since 2001, Turkey has carried out about 1,300 projects in various fields in Afghanistan, including education, health care and infrastructure, and trained 5,000 Afghan soldiers and 10,000 policemen. It has opened consulates in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat and is preparing to open a third one in Kandahar, the Taliban’s former stronghold on which the insurgents are closing in anew. Since 2010, the two countries have marked March 1 as Turkish-Afghan Friendship Day. 

Bringing peace to a country plagued by multi-actor wars for four decades could indeed prove a tall order for Turkey, as Qurishi noted. Still, a peace deal achieved at talks hosted by Turkey would set another milestone in Turkish-Afghan ties as they mark their centenary. Such a breakthrough would strengthen Turkey’s standing in Central Asia and could offer a chance to break the ice between Ankara and Washington. One caveat is what ties Ankara would foster with the Taliban in such a process, given its controversial record of alignment with Islamist groups in the region.

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