What is in store for Afghanistan after the withdrawal?

What is in store for Afghanistan after the withdrawal?

Turkey has undertaken the duty at the latest NATO summit to operate and protect the International Kabul Airport after the withdrawal of the USA and NATO troops from Afghanistan. While the aftermath of the NATO summit continues, debates on the Biden administration’s policies for the Middle East are still in progress.

We interviewed the former Chief of General Staff Intelligence of the Turkish Armed Forces, Ret. Lieutenant General İsmail Hakkı Pekin about the aftermath of the NATO summit and the developments in the region.

The USA could not get what it wanted from the NATO summit

The latest NATO summit has stirred the agenda on the USA-EU relations, relations with Turkey and the attitude against China and Russia. Considering the previous declarations stating that the NATO is “brain dead”, what is your evaluation of the latest NATO summit?

Generally, we may see this NATO summit as a show of force by the USA. The meeting was held in order to re-strengthen the Atlantic alliance or to make it look strong. If we look at the outcomes; firstly, Russia was shown as the number one threat again. However, despite all efforts of the USA, China was shown as a competitor, not a threat. NATO countries could not reach a consensus on China, because the Western countries also have relations with China. The USA tried to picture the NATO as a necessary armed force to solve all problems in the World (climate, the North Pole, immigration etc.). However, many issues remained unresolved. A decision was taken to establish a new NATO strategy; this concept will be signed in the summit to be held in Spain in 2022.

The summit remained inconclusive also for Turkey. There was no decision on a cooperation against terrorism, no common definition was made in relation to terrorist organizations. No solution came out on the issues of S-400s and F-35s. As regards to the former meetings, Turkey was mentioned in a couple of issues: 1. Turkey’s struggle against terrorism, 2. the issues of immigrants. Turkey undertook the duty to operate the international airport in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Western forces. Turkey will be the leader country on that. This might be seen as a NATO mission, however it is a duty that is in line with Turkey’s interests. I attach importance to this mission.

As a result, the USA had planned this summit as its own show of force, however it did not bring a picture of unity. There isn’t a consensus even on the Russia issue. The USA had to accept the Nord Stream 2. In relation to the Black Sea, negotiations will be initiated with the goal for Georgia and Ukraine to be members. Of course, this lies in front of us as a security problem for Turkey. The NATO has held a meeting to reset relations. Turkey emphasized once again that its place is in the West. However, it also clearly stated that its relations with China and Russia will continue.

This will serve Turkey’s geopolitical goals

You talked about the role Turkey will assume after withdrawal from Afghanistan. Can you elaborate on this mission a little bit? And will the USA surrender Afghanistan that easily? Do you think they have a back-up plan? What is in store for Afghanistan?

The USA will withdraw all of its forces from there until September. As you know, the USA and its allies have been fighting there for about 20 years. Western forces will also withdraw their troops together with the USA. We can see that the Afghan armed forces and their government cannot be effective in the country despite all those years, they could not go out of Kabul. Taliban commands the other regions.

The war continues, the Taliban advances every day. There is only one point for providing humanitarian aid, sustaining transport and taking the foreign missions out if there is to be an intervention again: That is the Kabul International Airport. Afghanistan is a mountainous country and it has no access to maritime transport. The land connection over Pakistan and Iran is dangerous. Therefore, this airport has a critical importance and it must be operated.

Turkey stepped in on this issue. We currently have 500 troops over there. Our Minister of Defense stated that they will not send any more troops, the existing troops are enough. So, we therefore sent a message to Taliban, we imply that we are objective, we are not a threat or enemy to Taliban, our only mission is to operate the airport. So, Turkey will not enter Afghanistan, we will only operate the Kabul International Airport. We must underline this. Our presence there will fill in a void. We have historical relations with Afghanistan and the regional countries. This duty will serve Turkey’s geopolitical goals and its strategy. This should not bother the Islamic countries and the regional countries by any means and Turkey must not get involved in the problems of other countries. Turkey may also want Pakistan here too, Pakistan has good relations with Taliban.

Turkey’s presence there is the best choice for the USA

If this is not realized, that is, if Turkey does not step in, the USA has mercenaries, they may deploy them, however this would cost too much for the USA. The USA then has to find another base in the region, however, Pakistan says it will not give its bases and the USA has no bases in Central Asian countries, it might be doing some research on that.

On the other hand, Turkey is a Muslim country, and it has an impact on the region, there is sympathy towards Turkey. Therefore, Turkey’s presence there is the best choice for the USA. It is said that Taliban will seize the whole country within 2 years. If this happens, should the region be given to the Taliban or will there be a new intervention via the airport? They might be planning this as well.

So, we must look at whether this is a strategic withdrawal or a tactical one. If the USA wants to have a presence in Asia-Pacific, it needs Afghanistan to stop China. However, Afghanistan is going towards a civil war. Turkey might prevent this to an extent by acting as a mediator. It might use soft power through humanitarian aid and might prevent the civil war from becoming a severe conflict. Of course, Turkey must also contact the regional countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, China and Russia. Also, training of the Afghan troops in Qatar is on the agenda, maybe Turkey can train them there. In summary, Turkey can do a deed which serves its national interests while fulfilling this NATO duty.

The project of ‘Second Israel’ continues

There are new developments in the Middle East. Israel had a change of government and Biden saluted the new government in enthusiasm. On the other hand, there were elections in Iran, and a clear message was given to the USA on nuclear talks. Contacts between Qatar and Egypt started. Contacts between Syria and Saudi Arabia continue. Meanwhile, the USA continues to send weapons to the YPG. How do you see Biden’s new Middle East policy?

Elections were held in Israel, however, there will not be a significant change in the policies. Netanyahu was a person that had passed the limits, and the complaints from the Arabs and the Europe would continue as long as he was present. However, I don’t think that the Israeli policies will change with the new government. So, the policies for maintaining Israel’s security will continue.

A conservative candidate won the elections in Iran. He was likely to come in power, because the Rouhani government tied all its future on the removal of sanctions as a result of the nuclear treaty. The country went into a large economic crisis and the people got tired. The economic crisis directed the people to the conservative candidate. However, I don’t think there will be a change in the foreign policies. A rigid policy may be followed domestically, if this happens, this rigidity would disturb the people and there would be a situation that will benefit the West. As for the Nuclear Treaty, the USA, with the pressure of Israel, is trying to limit Iran on ballistic missiles. Except for the issue of ballistic missiles, the treaty might be concluded. While Biden tries to clear out the nuclear missiles from Iran, the Abraham Accords are still in force. The USA is trying to assure Israel’s security.

The USA implied that it might withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria. This troubled also the Gulf countries. Therefore, the relations of Turkey and the regional countries with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar might improve. This would push Saudi Arabia towards building relations with Turkey. Of course, the USA will continue to support YPG in the region even if it has no troops of its own. They are trying to create a void in Iraq. They are trying to establish a federal state. Turkey must be careful here and be proactive in places where Turkmens are dominant, such as Kirkuk and Mosul.

Certainly, Kadhimi cannot dominate the whole of Iraq. There is Barzani, there are forces of the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al Shaabi), and there is the Sinjar region. There is also the Kurdish Council, which supports Barzani, however they don’t want to act with the YPG. The Arab clans in that region including Manbij are disturbed by the dominance and pressure of the YPG. The USA gave the operation of oil in there to a company, and then this decision was cancelled. Now it is controlled by the YPG.

Turkey established a secure region at the North of Iraq. This is really important. Also, Turkey might continue to Operation Peace Spring and try to create a secure region here too. In Idlib, the intelligence agencies of the USA and France are trying to use their force there against Russia. If there is a clash there, 3.5 million Syrians would immigrate towards Turkey. The USA’s goal is to provide for Israel’s security and to take down the Syrian government; also it aims to prevent Iran from being effective in Iraq using ISIS. Of course, when we talk about the Middle East, we must include the Eastern Mediterranean and also Cyprus. You know, there is also Libya, I don’t think there will be a problem about Turkey’s presence in Libya. However, the USA will continue to support YPG and follow its goal to establish a Second Israel in the Middle East.

Ismail Hakkı Pekin
Retired Lt. Gen. Ismail Hakkı Pekin is the former Head of Turkey’s General Staff Intelligence Agency between 2007-2011. He was born in 1951 in Iznik. He is married and is the father of two children.

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May 2023