US, Turkey see win-win partnership in Afghanistan and beyond

Asia Times



[Turkey is being incentivized on various fronts to return to the
Western fold and play its due role as a NATO power]

By MK Bhadrakumar
  

The zeal with which Washington is soliciting Turkey’s services to plot
a way to normalize Afghanistan’s Taliban raises some troubling
questions.

Acting on Washington’s request, Turkey will be hosting high-level
talks on the Afghanistan peace process this April to bring together
the Afghan government and the Taliban. Turkey has appointed a special
envoy to assume the mediation role.

Turkey is entering the cockpit to navigate the Afghan peace process to
a conclusion that meets US objectives. This will have a salutary
effect on the fraught Turkish-American relationship.

The US appreciates that Turkey is an influential member of the
Organization of Islamic Cooperation, enjoys historical links with
Afghanistan and has a positive image among Afghans. But digging
deeper, the unholy US-Turkey alliance in the Syrian conflict creates
disquiet.

The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are reluctant to
vacate Afghanistan by the deadline of May 1. Turkey will be overseeing
an open-ended US-NATO presence. The US hopes to retain a strong
intelligence presence backed by special operations forces.

A report Friday from CNN disclosed that the “CIA, which has had a
significant say in US decision-making in Afghanistan, has ‘staked out
some clear positions’ during recent deliberations, arguing in favor of
continuing US involvement.”

The scale of the CIA activities in Afghanistan are not in the public
domain — especially, whether its regional mandate extends beyond the
borders of Afghanistan. The CNN report cited above lifted the veil on
“one of the most heavily guarded bases” of the CIA — Forward Operating
Base Chapman, “a classified US military installation in eastern
Afghanistan.”

Suffice to say, given the presence of the ISIS fighters (including
those transferred from Syria to Afghanistan — allegedly in US
aircraft, according to Russia and Iran) — the nexus between the
Taliban and al-Qaeda, and above all, the presence of Uighur, Central
Asian and Chechen terrorists, Turkey’s induction as the US’ buddy in
Afghanistan is indeed worrisome for regional states.

Turkey has transferred jihadi fighters from Idlib to Libya and
Nagorno-Karabakh to fight hybrid wars.

Significantly, Turkey has abruptly shifted its stance on the Uighur
issue after years of passivity and hyped it up as a diplomatic issue
between Ankara and Beijing. China’s ambassador to Ankara was summoned
to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry last Tuesday.

On the other hand, a perceptible “thaw” in US-Turkey relations is
under way. During the recent NATO ministerial in Brussels, US
Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored, “I believe having
Turkey in NATO is particularly for the benefit of us.”

Clearly, any American overtures to Turkey will be in need of a
powerful success story. That is where Turkey’s mediatory role in
Afghanistan and a potential role in post-settlement Afghanistan become
templates of Washington’s dual containment strategy toward Russia and
China.

Turkey has staked claims for the mantle of leadership of the Turkic
world stretching from the Black Sea to the steppes of Central Asia and
China’s Xinjiang region. Simply put, Turkey’s role in Afghanistan and
Central Asia will challenge its relationship with Russia, which is
already under strain in Libya, Syria, Caucasus and potentially in the
Black Sea and the Balkans.

In a phone conversation on April 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin
cautioned Turkish president Recep Erdogan about “the importance of
preserving the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the
Straits with a view to ensuring regional stability and security.”

The Montreux Convention regulates the passage of naval warships
through the Bosporus.

Equally, the US hopes to keep Iran off-balance regionally by
encouraging Turkish revanchism. The Turkish-Iranian rivalry is already
palpable in Iraq where Washington hopes to establish NATO as a
provider of security.

Serious rifts between Ankara and Tehran appear also over
Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Afghanistan’s future figured prominently in
the discussions during Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif’s
recent six-day regional tour of Central Asian capitals.

China and Russia are vigilant about the US intentions in Afghanistan.
And both have problematic relations with Erdogan. Turkey’s ascendance
on the Afghan-Central Asian landscape cannot be to their comfort.

During his recent visit to Tehran, China’s State Councilor and Foreign
Minister Wang Yi voiced support for Iran’s membership of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
is due to visit Tehran on April 14.

Overall, these geopolitical realignments are taking place as the US
intensifies its suppression of China and Russia. But, for Turkey, the
intervention in Syria has proved profitable. The Turkish-controlled
territories of northern Syria consists of an 8,835-square-kilometer
area already and Ankara has no intentions to vacate its occupation.

Turkey will no doubt look for similar gains. For a start, regaining
primacy in the Western alliance system as the US’s irreplaceable
partner and as Europe’s interlocutor with Muslim Middle East has
always been a Turkish dream.

A clincher will be whether Washington can prevail upon the EU to grant
some special dispensation for Turkey — “associate membership” is one
possibility.

For the EU, too, Turkey becomes a key partner if NATO is to
consolidate in the Black Sea and encircle Russia in its backyard.
Turkey has already positioned itself as a provider of security for the
anti-Russian regime in Ukraine. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky
visited Erdogan on Saturday against the backdrop of rising tensions
with Russia.

Turkish officials are cautiously optimistic about recent high-level
efforts to improve dialogue between Ankara and Brussels. The European
actors are coordinating with Washington.

The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council
President Charles Michel’s visit to Ankara last Wednesday can be seen
as a significant initial effort to improve relations with Turkey.

As one Turkish commentator put it, the “olive branch” given by the EU
leaders to Erdogan has “five main leaves”, namely:

    A concrete agenda on economic cooperation and migration;
    Handling and updating the problems related to a Customs Union;

    Commitment to continue the flow of funds for refugees in Turkey;

    Adding momentum to relations with Turkey on key cooperation areas; and,

    The Eastern Mediterranean region’s security and stability

All in all, Turkey is being “incentivized” to return to the Western
fold and play its due role as a NATO power.

Today, Turkey is probably the only ally regionally and internationally
that Washington can lean on to wean Pakistan away from the orbit of
Chinese and Russian influence, which truly makes Turkey an
indispensable partner for the US and NATO in a Taliban-ruled
Afghanistan.

Indeed, Russia and Turkey have historically been rivals in
Afghanistan. Turkey has deep-rooted, centuries-old, pan-Islamic ties
with Afghanistan that by far predate Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

How far Pakistan will be willing to play a subaltern role in
Afghanistan’s future remains to be seen. But then, all this must have
Russia worried in regard to the security and stability of its Central
Asian backyard and North Caucasia. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s
visit to Islamabad last week was the first such ministerial visit
since 2012.

Fundamentally, however, the contradictions in US-Turkey relations will
not simply wither away. Those contradictions include the US’ alliance
with Kurds in Syria; US opposition to Turkey’s intervention in Libya;
Erdogan’s abysmal human rights record; discord over Turkey’s S-400
missile deal with Russia; and so on.

But the two Cold War allies are also used to finessing contradictions
whenever opportunities arise to work together to mutual benefit.
Without a doubt, in the power dynamic of the highly strategic regions
surrounding Afghanistan, the two countries can look forward to
“win-win” cooperation.



 

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