Can Turkey fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan?

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As the Taliban rapidly seized control of Afghanistan this past August, global powers like the US and the UK pulled out of the country after nearly two decades, leaving behind them a power vacuum that different regional players have been vying to fill since. Among them, Turkey has emerged as a key mediator between the new government in Kabul and the international community, taking advantage of Afghanistan’s power void to move closer to its own geostrategic goals. In this context, Turkish presence in Afghanistan is only the most recent example of Ankara’s efforts to expand its soft power in the region and establish itself as a key political power.

Following NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban have requested Turkey’s help in running the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Having no land border with Afghanistan, by assisting the Taliban in this regard Turkey hopes to gain a stepping stone to Central Asia. While the Taliban have requested only technical assistance from Turkey and do not want the Turkish Armed Forces or any other foreign military at the airport, Ankara has been working on a compromise. Namely, instead of using its military, Turkey is considering engaging SADAT Inc. International Defense Consultancy, a private Turkish military and security contractor.

By gaining access to Kabul’s airport, Turkey is simultaneously seen securing further economic expansion in the region. For example, opening economic relations with the Taliban could be an opportunity for Turkish goods to find their way to the Afghan market. Furthermore, warmer relations with the Taliban appear to have opened a door for Turkish construction companies to enter Afghanistan and work on projects to repair the war-torn country’s infrastructure. In fact, during the Taliban-Turkey high-level talks in Ankara in October 2021, the Taliban welcomed Turkey’s participation in infrastructure projects and economic investment programs in the country. Finally, as it is already host to over 3.7 million Syrian refugees, gaining a foothold in Afghanistan could help prevent an additional flow of Afghan refugees to Turkey. Averting an influx of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban is seen as a priority of Ankara’s given that accepting additional refugees would undermine the government’s popularity at home.

What differentiates Turkey from other players competing to fill the regional power vacuum are the country’s extensive religious, cultural and political ties to Afghanistan, as well as its status as an ally to Pakistan, the Taliban’s main backer. Additionally, Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan in a non-combatant role means the country is not perceived as an invader, unlike other NATO states.

Should it continue to refrain from the use of hard power, Turkey’s ambitions in Afghanistan are likely to deliver results and Ankara is set to cement its position as a mediator between the Taliban and the international community.