Entering the Endless War: Afghanistan

(R) Ambassador

The US asked Turkey to stay in Afghanistan where it withdraws after two decades in the first Erdoğan-Biden meeting as two presidents on June 14 on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Brussels. (Photo: Turkish Presidency)

 
The United States has asked Turkey to take over peace and stability operations at the Hamid Karzai Airport in the capital of Afghanistan.
 
The request was personally conveyed to President Erdogan by President Biden during their encounter at the recent NATO summit. And, during the post-summit press conference, Erdoğan confirmed that he replied positively to this request.
 
In fact, based on public knowledge, this is the only issue that the two leaders discussed during their first bilateral meeting. We do not know if any of the issues on the long list of bilateral disagreements, such as Turkey’s procurement of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, Turkey’s removal from the F35 program, continued U.S. support for the Syrian arm of the PKK (YPG), the mistaken recognition of the so-called Armenian Genocide, the Halkbank case and the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, were discussed between the two leaders.
 
Immediately after the summit bilateral military discussions started which resulted in the visit of an American military delegation to Ankara. Subsequently, the Turkish Minister of Defence of his American counterpart had at least two separate phone calls.
 
It is no secret that our American allies would like to prevent chaos in Afghanistan following the retreat of American and NATO forces. Especially in light of Afghanistan’s inherent strategic role in a luring cold war between the U.S. and the China-Russia axis, American officials are keen on preventing a Vietnam-like retreat from Afghan soil.
 
There is only one American ally that can help prevent such a disaster. Turkey effectively is the only NATO country that has the experience and historical goodwill needed among Afghans to assume such a difficult task.
 
In short, it is clear that U.S. actions are perfectly aligned with its own interests and security needs. Furthermore, it is equally clear that U.S. officials who never fail to emphasize that NATO is not merely about joint military defense priorities but about shared democratic values as well, are willing to ignore Turkey’s periodic shortcomings in domestic good governance.

What’s in it for Turkey?

What specific Turkish interests are served that justify taking the lead on “The Endless War”? Did we properly execute a cost-benefit analysis that concludes the benefits outweigh the risks? I’m worried that we did not.
 
Even the most basic analysis would have exposed American motivations for making such an offer to Turkey. American intelligence agencies already warned that the Afghan government could collapse following the exit of American soldiers. Every serious analyst believes a full-scale civil war is a clear and present risk.
 
To make matters worse, the Biden administration failed to formulate a solution that would ensure the security of thousands of Afghans that cooperated with coalition forces during the last two decades. And – in addition to an increase of refugees – we are already witnessing an exodus of Afghan officials seeking safe haven in neighboring countries.
 
Not surprisingly, the Taliban has already made it explicitly clear that it will not accept the presence of any foreign entity – Turkey included – on Afghan soil following the retreat of NATO forces. Taliban leaders also left little doubt that they will not be seeking a compromise with the existing Afghan government, i.e. what’s left of it.
 
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to reconcile Erdogan’s positive answer to Biden’s request with Turkish interests.

Why then did Turkey accept this proposal?

In my opinion, the main reason is Erdoğan’s belief that the opportunity to continue a personal dialogue with President Biden is worth taking these risks. Erdoğan wants to leverage these risks to force a warmer relationship with the U.S. allowing him to circumvent the various disagreements between the two countries; at least for the time being.
 
Another determinant is probably to secure enough economic aid to mitigate the economic recession that Turkey is suffering. Our American ally is likely to receive and accept to pay a sizeable invoice to secure Turkish cooperation for this misguided plan.
 
Any reasonable analysis of the dynamics surrounding this decision should have concluded that it risks pulling Turkey and its foreign policy into an impossible to manage quagmire. And benefits such as access to the Biden’s White House cannot compete to the likely negative externalities of the herculean responsibility that Turkey will be shouldering.
 
Turkey has an exemplary and proud history with Afghanistan. We all carry a responsibility to ensure we do not sacrifice the good-will generated over decades in return for temporary and personal tactical gains.
 
If the Turkish government insists on assuming this extremely difficult responsibility against all odds, at the very least it needs to ensure that our soldiers enjoy a legitimate mandate from the Turkish Parliament. The viewpoint that this new adventure would fall under an existing authorization is flawed and dangerous. The Biden Administration, on its part, should ensure a United Nations Security Council decision is taken that authorizes Turkish military presence on Afghan soil.
 
Alternatively, Turkish troops will find themselves under fire without the legal protection of international law and the Government of Turkey will be forever exposed to valid claims of illegal action on foreign soil.

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