The Retreat from Afghanistan and Turkey’s Victory Day

August 30, 2021

Many military and intelligence experts predicted that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would not be an easy operation. With chaotic evacuations and the devastating twin bomb attacks of last Thursday, they proved right.

Through the withdrawal Washington not only empowered the Taliban politically but also left behind millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, arms, and ammunition leading to questions. Was this only in exchange for a safe evacuation or more? The “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America” was signed in Doha on February 29, 2020. What was negotiated and agreed on since then? Is there a broader agreement? On July 8, President Biden was asked if he trusted the Taliban. This was his response: “It’s a silly question.  Do I trust the Taliban?  No…” Has this changed? Are the Taliban no longer an enemy but a partner? If so, has this been discussed with NATO partners? Have they agreed?

On August 16, President Biden said, “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland… Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan: al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.  These threats warrant our attention and our resources.”

Does this mean that there might be new military interventions? Or would Washington start prioritizing multilateralism, start working with other major powers in confronting these common threats?

The twin bomb attacks by  Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) in Kabul were undertaken to show world that “the mission is far from accomplished”; that the threat of terrorism is very much alive not only in places mentioned by Mr. Biden but also in Afghanistan after two decades of US and allied engagement.

This is what the BBC reported on the perpetrators of the Kabul twin bomb attacks: “Unlike the Taliban, whose interest is confined to Afghanistan, Isis-K are part of the global IS network that seeks to carry out attacks on western, international and humanitarian targets wherever they can reach them. Are they linked to the Taliban? Peripherally yes, via a third party, the Haqqani network. According to researchers, there are strong links between Isis-K and the Haqqani network, which in turn is closely linked to the Taliban. The man now in charge of security in Kabul is Khalil Haqqani who has had a $5m (£3.6m) bounty on his head.”[i]

Following the attacks President Biden declared, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

But there is a bigger problem: fighting the ideology of the Islamic State and its likes. And this is far more important than the hunting down a few criminals.

Unfortunately, a shift of axis by Moslem countries on ideology is a demanding task with inherent difficulties. For decades Middle East’s authoritarian leaders have resisted political reform. They have suppressed dissent. They have failed to improve their peoples’ living standards. Yet, most of them were able to maintain cozy relationships with the West. Thus, the Islamist opposition, much better organized than others, paid a price but gained strength.

As for the West, Europeans have an imperialist legacy and the Americans a history of devastating military interventions. In its dealings with the Middle East, the West has always been after its narrow political and economic interests, so much so that its public discourse on democracy became suspect. The long-drawn-out Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the invasion of Iraq, interventions in Syria and Libya deepened anti-Western sentiment among peoples. Projects like the long-forgotten Alliance of Civilizations launched by Spain and Turkey produced hardly anything. And the Arab Spring military interventions gave the most extreme groups a welcome opportunity to raise the flag.

In the face of the brutality displayed by ISIS and its likes, all the leaders of Moslem countries were able to say was, “this is not Islam.” Not enough. They should have launched a comprehensive program which would give world’s 1.6 billion Moslems an enlightened understanding of their faith through enlightened education and deprive ISIS of its base support. Unfortunately, such moves carry the risk of alienating their conservative masses. Therefore, they have little appeal for governments. “Secularism” which remains the antidote to sectarianism and fratricide is still anathema to the Middle East.

According to 2015 data released by the Pew Research Center collected in 11 “nations with significant Muslim populations”, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS.[ii]  This was also the case in Turkey.  But even in “constitutionally secular” Turkey which in the past was expected to set “an example to follow”, although 73% had an unfavorable opinion of ISIS, 8% held a favorable opinion and 19% remained undecided. Add a few percentage points from the “undecided” to the “favorable” and that would put support for ISIS above 10%.  Turkey has a 10% electoral threshold for political parties to make it to the parliament. In other words, the 10% threshold is a criterion for political significance. Thus, if the Turkish Taliban were allowed to participate in parliamentary elections, with Taliban’s comeback in Afghanistan, they have a reasonable chance of success. In Saudi Arabia where such surveys are not allowed, ISIS can be expected to have much larger support. Figures for Pakistan are also alarming.

In brief, leaders, governments in most Moslem countries are reluctant to engage in a coordinated frontal attack against ISIS’s ideology beyond condemning specific acts of terror. As a result, dealing with ISIS and similar groups on the battlefield becomes the only option. This has to change.

In the Middle East the West must start from zero. It must  review its policies, build trust, inspire confidence, and engage in multilateralism to pave the way for a global coalition to fight extremist ideologies and to offer Middle East peoples a better life. Until this is done, the world would not be a safe place.

The chaotic and bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan is the final wake-up call for the West.

As I said in my last post, Moscow and Peking were no doubt delighted to see the US get bogged down in Afghanistan for two decades, just as Washington was delighted to watch USSR’s invasion end up in failure.  But after two disastrous experiences, history should not be allowed to repeat itself. Washington should not start enjoying what might be the negative repercussions of the Taliban victory for its two strategic competitors. The threat of terrorism requires global cooperation.

Regardless, in the middle of a chaotic withdrawal, Vice President Kamala Harris travelled to Singapore and Vietnam where she said, “And yet, in the South China Sea, we know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate, and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea… And Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” drawing a sharp response from Peking. Her untimely visit and remarks were symptoms of a disjointed foreign policy.  

The chaotic withdrawal and the leaving behind of thousands of desperate Afghans will negatively impact American foreign and security policy,  transatlantic relations, and US domestic politics for the rest of the Biden presidency. The wisdom, planning and the execution of the withdrawal will remain controversial topics. There is no doubt that President Biden was determined to make the ending of America’s longest war his lasting legacy. He probably saw this also as an opportunity to show the world that he is the most experienced, strong-willed leader on world stage. The balance sheet of the withdrawal remains to be seen.

Today, August 30, is the anniversary of Turkey’s Victory Day, marking the end of our War of Independence against  the victors of the First World War. Last Thursday, August 26,  was the anniversary of the launching of our “Great Offensive” in 1922.

Last Thursday also marked the termination of the subcontract for the “securing of the Kabul airport” whatever this meant, and the beginning of the evacuation of Turkish troops to safety due to force majeure. It was a misguided and widely opposed project to start with.

But now, there seems to be second offer, this time by the Taliban but probably drafted in Washington, to “operate” the airport. Under today’s most adverse security conditions, the Turkish government should decline the offer gracefully. Last Saturday, President Biden himself said an attack at the airport in Kabul is “highly likely” in the next 24 to 36 hours. Can anyone guarantee that the following days will be different? The Italian, French and British ambassadors and others have already left Kabul. With continuing warnings of new terrorist attacks, this is the time to put the security of our nationals above everything else.

On our Victory Day, we the people of Turkey are eternally grateful to Ataturk and his comrades in arms for leading our War of Independence, founding the Republic and for the enlightened reforms which broke the vicious circle of decades and decades of decadent Ottoman rule. The only way the peoples of the Middle East can break theirs is to follow his path.

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[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58333533

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/in-nations-with-significant-muslim-populations-much-disdain-for-isis/

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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