The time has come to think again

After weeks of trying to persuade the Taliban that Turkey should command the security of Kabul airport, the Erdogan government appears to have relented and ordered the evacuation of the Turkish military contingent. Presidential Advisor Ibrahim Kalin has intimated that Turkey still hopes to offer its services to operate the airport. Whether the Taliban government will accept the offer is as of yet unknown.

The Turkish government tried to persuade the Taliban that Turkish forces should remain in Afghanistan, utilizing in particular the argument that the two countries share a common religion, but to no avail. The Taliban leadership, noting that they wanted to develop good relations with Turkey, insisted however that as the new sovereign power in the country, they did not need the presence of an outside power to ensure the security of the airport. They consider this to be their own prerogative.

The reluctance of the Taliban to allow foreign troops to perform security duties in their country, however well-intentioned the forces may be, is a natural manifestation of the jealousy that is common to groups that have fought wars in their homeland against foreigners they see as occupying powers. What is surprising is the failure of the Turkish government to understand that religious ties alone would not constitute sufficient grounds for the Taliban to change their position on the presence of foreign troops in their country. Although the Turkish government is unlikely to concede the point, it is clear that the outcome is nothing less than policy failure.

Governments do not enjoy encountering policy failures, but failure may sometimes offer an opportunity to review policies, evaluate them and invite their reconsideration and modification. It may be appropriate to ask whether the failure of the government’s Afghan policy will lead to a such a reconsideration. Let us begin by remembering the origins of Turkey’s religion-tinted foreign policy. After the Arab Spring, it quickly became clear that the Turkish government saw demands for political change as an opportunity to assume regional leadership of the Middle East. To do so, it needed to ally itself with the forces clamoring for change. As it turned out, the best organized movements among those forces were the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. This alliance suited the Turkish government fine – not only had it developed good ties with the groups, but they also subscribed to the Sunni brand of Islam.

Turkish policymakers, confident that the Brotherhood would ride into power in all societies undergoing the transformative experience of the Arab Spring and believing that religion constituted a determining bond between societies as opposed to other aspects of identity, threw their unqualified support behind the Brotherhood. In retrospect, this choice appears to have been optimistic to the point of naivete. To begin with, traditional Arab regimes rightly perceived the Brotherhood as a threat to their rule and engaged in efforts to prevent its rise to power and quash them where they had achieved it. Second, in tribally and religiously fragmented societies held together under authoritarian leadership, efforts to remove the authoritarian regimes did not result in the rise of any one political movement, but rather in fragmentation and civil strife to which external powers were easily drawn. Libya became a competition ground for global and regional powers, each of whom used proxies to advance their interests. In Syria, a no-holds-barred civil war broke out, and it is ongoing. This war enabled Russia to reestablish itself firmly in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean and produced a permanent alliance between Kurdish terrorist movements and the United States, which poses a security threat to Turkey. The war also brought approximately four million Syrian refugees into Turkey and invited a costly Turkish military presence in some parts of Syria.

Third, all major powers, for different reasons, perceived the Brotherhood as a threat to global stability and were skeptical that they were a democratizing force. These powers worked to prevent the Brotherhood from achieving power. Fourth, Turkey became increasingly isolated in the region region. Traditional regimes in the region have turned their back to Turkey; it ended up with adversarial relations with Egypt and Israel. An anti-Turkish bloc has taken shape, aiming, among others, to deprive Turkey of the gas and oil riches that appear to be lying in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, Turkey has lost what might have actually been called a “leadership position” in the region. Prior to 2011, Turkey had managed to position itself such that all regional governments had good relations with Turkey, enabling it to act as a mediator or arbiter of conflicts among them. This also enabled Turkey to develop highly prosperous economic relations with regional states. The policy change towards religiously-motivated foreign policy has ended this privileged position.

The failure of the arguments of Islamic affinity to be particularly effective with the Taliban, a minor failure compared to the overall failure of the religiously-driven regional leadership policy may, nevertheless, serve as a triggering event to review and change this policy. It is known that the President has a stubborn personality and that he is resistant to changing course. Whether he will remains to be seen.

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