A national soldier holds an Afghanistan flag in a 2019 file photo. Image: AFP

With the clock ticking down to US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan on September 11, the future of the central Asian country hangs in the balance.

One country keenly aware of this – and with long historical and ethnic ties to Afghanistan – is Turkey.

Indeed, recent last-minute maneuvers by US President Joe Biden’s administration have brought Ankara to the fore in efforts to secure a more stable future for the war-torn country.

A US-backed peace conference in Istanbul – scheduled for last month, but postponed – may be relaunched post-Ramadan, with Turkey taking a leading role in this desperate diplomacy.

Indeed, Turkey “Will continue to stand by our brotherly Afghan government and people,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted on April 23, after the postponement.

His ministry had earlier outlined the role of the conference as laying out “a roadmap to a future political settlement and an end to the conflict.”

The initiative therefore has lofty goals for when it reconvenes.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani (L) during their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey on December 9, 2019. Photo: Murat Kula / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Yet, as fighting escalates on the ground in Afghanistan – and aid agencies warn of a looming humanitarian catastrophe – there seem little grounds for optimism for either the conference or for Turkey’s diplomatic intervention.

“The likelihood that you’ll get all the sides coming together here is incredibly low,” Andrew Watkins, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, told Asia Times. “When the US announced it was withdrawing, that took all the oxygen out the room. Now, there’s little space for anyone to focus on anything else.”

Turkic links

Yet, for all that, Turkey is in a unique position among the foreign powers now engaged in Afghanistan. Turkish troops were among the first to join the US-led coalition back in 2001 – albeit in a non-combat role.

A Turkish general assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in June 2002, with Turkish military trainers working with the Afghan Armed Forces (AAF) and police.

Turkish institutions have also founded schools and educational institutes around Afghanistan, with Turkish consulates set up in Afghan cities such as Herat and Kandahar.

Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Turkmen minorities also speak Turkic languages and share an ethnic identity with Turkey.

Ankara is also a close ally of Pakistan, as well as Qatar, with the former long involved in the Afghan conflict and the latter hosting the Taliban’s only overseas mission. It was this that enabled Doha to become the venue for the peace talks between the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban that started last year.

Given all these connections, “People have long talked of Turkey’s potential influence in Afghanistan, even though it has not often been seen in practice, over the years,” says Watkins.

The upcoming conference might be that opportunity but there are many obstacles along the way.

Looming catastrophe

Primary amongst these is the conflict itself.

While the Taliban has stopped attacking US and other foreign coalition forces since the US announced its forces would withdraw, it has recently stepped up attacks on government troops and supporters.

“The speculation now is whether the US departure will lead to a new phase in Afghanistan’s civil war,” Patricia Gossman, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Asia, told Asia Times.

Indeed, “Both sides seem keen to display their military strength,” says Watkins. “The Taliban is convinced the Afghan government will fall apart the minute the foreigners leave, while the Afghan government forces think they will be able to keep going indefinitely.”

US troops are set to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Image: Agencies

The potential withdrawal of foreign funding for the Afghan government and for the wide range of social, cultural and economic projects underway in the country might also be catastrophic.

“Education, health care, civil society groups – they are all entirely dependent on foreign funding,” adds Gossman.

Women in particular are likely to suffer, as foreign donor pressure “opened up a space where women could organize – gave them a framework to work with,” adds Gossman.

At the same time, Afghanistan is facing a catastrophic drought this summer, while already, official government statistics suggest about a third of the population face food insecurity.

That number might rise to around half if the drought is not tackled soon in a country where around 90% of the population live below the poverty line.

Big challenges

For the Istanbul conference to successfully tackle these issues is therefore undoubtedly a tall order. Yet, for Turkey, there are several incentives for Ankara to at least try.

First, there is the prospect of a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan leading to large numbers of refugees heading west.

“Refugee displacement would very likely end up on Turkey’s eastern borders,” says Watkins.

Afghan, Turkmen and Uzbek refugees live in single-room earthen houses under difficult circumstances as they wait for food, medicine and other essential needs at the outskirts of Quetta, in Balochistan province of Pakistan on May 4, 2021. Afghanistan refugees are still not able to obtain passports and citizenship due to their refugee status. Photo: Recep Bilek / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Indeed, Turkey is already a major destination for Afghans fleeing the conflict, with more than 200,000 caught trying to enter Turkey in 2019 alone, according to Turkish and Afghan figures.

In 2020, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) figures showed Afghans also the largest migrant group hazarding the dangerous sea crossing in the Aegean, from Turkey into Greece.

Avoiding a further refugee crisis – Turkey already plays host to many Syrian refugees – would be a powerful incentive for further engagement by Ankara.

Some have indeed suggested that Turkey might maintain some kind of presence in Afghanistan after the US troop departure.

“We will continue to stay in this country as long as our Afghan brothers want,” Cavusoglu said back in March, after the Turkish parliament had voted to extend Turkey’s military presence in the country a further 18 months – until long after the US departure date.

“Turkey has many threads and ties to Afghanistan,” says Gossman, “and interests that go beyond this current phase.”

It has also been suggested that Turkey could use the conference – and the US desire to exit Afghanistan – as a way to gain leverage over Washington, at a time of tense US-Turkish relations.

French and Turkish soldiers salute during a ceremony to hand over responsibility to a Turkish unit at Kabul International Airport (KAIA) in Kabul on December 31, 2014. Photo: AFP/Shah Marai

“Turkey dragging its feet, acting as a spoiler, could have an impact on Biden’s withdrawal,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the German Marshal Fund’s Ankara director, told Asia Times.

Indeed, on May 8, news broke that Turkey might give up its current task of securing Kabul airport ahead of the US withdrawal – a move that would severely undermine the security of many Western embassies that use the airport to shuttle personnel in and out of the Afghan capital.

For now though, with Taliban fighters threatening to overrun several of Afghanistan’s smaller regional capitals – and the many different militias and factions within the country manoeuvering for a place, post-US – the Afghan people’s future remains in great doubt.

“There’s great anxiety,” says Gossman. “No one knows what will happen, while old militias re-arm and get ready – in case everything just goes south.”