Now that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is in full swing and there are barely any NATO troops left in the country, the Taliban’s brutal offensives are paying off. The insurgents’ political victory is not inevitable, but the Taliban have already managed to claim large swaths of territory, hoping to secure Kabul as the ultimate prize.
Although fighting in major Afghan cities including Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat is ongoing, the militants control much of the rural area including the strategically important regions near Pakistan and Iran.
But Afghanistan is no longer an American problem, and Washington is reducing its large military presence to intelligence operations and diplomatic missions. As such, President Joe Biden’s administration has been in talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to delegate the defense of Kabul Airport to Turkish forces.
For President Erdogan, this is an opportunity to mend Ankara’s deteriorated relationship with Washington by providing a security umbrella to the remaining American personnel.
The Taliban have responded ferociously, calling Ankara’s decision “reprehensible” and stating, “If Turkish officials fail to reconsider their decision and continue the occupation of our country, the Islamic Emirate … will take a stand against them.”
A clash between the Taliban and Turkish forces will be inevitable should Erdogan keep his troops in Kabul and treat a potential Taliban regime as an occupation force. To avoid a major escalation and pressure the Taliban to tolerate the Turkish presence, Ankara will likely tap Pakistan, which has the most leverage over the militant organization.
Pakistan has close relations with Turkey, and its Inter-Services Intelligence is believed to be courting the Taliban and other militant groups. While it is plausible that Islamabad is ready to back Ankara with intelligence and troop transportation, it is unlikely to throw its full weight behind Erdogan.
For Pakistan, it is essential to maintain a delicate balance vis-à-vis the Taliban. To be sure, a political victory by the Taliban would mean that mostly pro-Pakistan Pashtuns once again control Kabul. However, the Pakistani authorities cannot be ignorant of the dangers that such a victory might produce.
For instance, emboldened Afghan Taliban could galvanize their radical affiliates within Pakistan and push for greater influence in the country, causing a headache for the Pakistani military. As the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman attests, the Taliban enjoy much popularity in Pakistan and are seen as a viable alternative to the current government in Kabul.
Alternatively, by antagonizing the Taliban and openly siding with Turkey, Pakistan would lose its much-cherished position as a middleman between the militant organization and the West. Furthermore, to have a say in the future of the post-American Afghanistan, Islamabad cannot afford to alienate the Taliban insurgents that are currently on the offensive.
No less important are the prevalent impressions within the Pakistani establishment regarding the US involvement in Afghanistan.
Traditionally Islamabad has been quite suspicious of Washington’s intentions and often refused to share useful intelligence to assist the coalition forces. The deep-seated fear in Islamabad is that Washington might take advantage of the shared intelligence and use it against Pakistan in future negotiations. This fear has been exacerbated by Washington’s improved relations with India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy.
For example, the US played a central role in providing New Delhi with intelligence after the devastating Mumbai attacks in 2008. The terrorist plot originated in Pakistan and was orchestrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba, another terrorist group with links to Pakistani intelligence.
Additionally, the covert operation led by US Special Forces that eliminated Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was another embarrassing episode for Pakistani intelligence.
The Taliban are determined to push all foreign forces out and will only negotiate once they fully control Afghanistan. Pakistan knows that the Taliban are a tough nut to crack and for all the aforementioned reasons will refrain from investing much in the US-Turkish project.
If Erdogan backtracks, he will hand the militants a tactical victory. Should Ankara and Washington fail to reach an agreement, it will create another layer of tension between the NATO allies.
It is yet to be seen whether Erdogan has opened Pandora’s box. Nevertheless, his characteristically brash rhetoric and proneness to risky gambles will likely generate new dilemmas for Turkish foreign policy. In the meantime, the Taliban continue their advance.