On Feb. 29, a “historic” deal took place with the potential to shift the destiny of one of the globe's most war-ravaged countries, Afghanistan. The deal, reached between the U.S. and the Taliban, neither of whom represents a ruling party in Kabul, has been regarded by many as a crucial step toward peace. Although progress now seems to have been stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic which has quickly transformed into a global crisis, despite one of the premises of the deal itself outlining the launch of intra-Afghan peace talks as a follow-up to the process. Having proven itself to be a neutral actor with cultural and historical bonds to the people of Afghanistan, Turkey has already set an eye to hosting the talks, expressing willingness to mediate between the conflicting parties.
"Turkey has generally opted to put itself forward as a neutral venue for intra-Afghan talks and to play a mediator role," said Tanya Goudsouzian, an Istanbul-based Afghanistan affairs specialist, underlining that this is not a new idea for Turkey.
The deal between the U.S. and the Taliban was signed in Doha, Qatar, after an 18-month-long negotiation process. After nine rounds of often on-off progress, more than a year later agreement was finally reached, ensuring that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from the country with 14 months. According to the deal, in the first 135 days, the U.S. is to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, pulling out of five military bases, before leaving the rest of the country “within the remaining nine and a half months.” The main element of the U.S. withdrawal agreement is a Taliban promise that the group will not let Afghanistan be used by terrorists to attack the U.S. and its allies. It also established a new series of talks, which were expected to be launched in Oslo, Norway, in March and have been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
According to Goudsouzian, it pays to recall the Heart of Asia, Istanbul Process, which was initiated in 2011 to "provide a platform to discuss regional issues, particularly encouraging security, political and economic cooperation among Afghanistan and its neighbors."
"Turkey is ready to mediate intra-Afghan peace talks if requested," said Oğuzhan Ertuğrul, the country's envoy to Kabul, on March 11, underlining Turkey's willingness to take part in such a process. Ertuğrul highlighted that the road to peace would be a tricky one and that the first step would be to launch a negotiation process with representatives from all segments of Afghan society. He further emphasized that although the deal with the Taliban mentioned the launching of the negotiation process, it did not refer to the measures that could be taken if the negotiations fail, which is the biggest snag in the agreement.
Another reason why the peace process has stalled has come in the form of political turmoil caused by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, rival Afghan politicians, who have remained deadlocked over who was elected president in last September's presidential polls. Both declared themselves president at competing inauguration ceremonies earlier this month. These new talks were planned to take place between the Taliban and the Afghan government, with an aim to bring peace to the war-torn country while putting the Taliban back into the legitimate political scene as a crucial actor. These follow-up talks came to the scene after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg signed another agreement with the Afghan government in the capital province of Kabul.
Afghan parties trust Turkey
To the mind of Kaswar Klasra, a senior journalist based in Islamabad, Turkey enjoys the trust of major internal stakeholders in Afghanistan and also has a distinct advantage over any other third party facilitators in a mediatory role in Afghanistan. "So," he said, "it makes Turkey favorite for the role of mediator in Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal."
"Turkey has all the ingredients to lead regional powers to return peace in Afghanistan following U.S. withdrawal. It has the capability to bring all regional powers including Iran, Russia and Pakistan on one page to help steer the peace process in Afghanistan. All political stakeholders including the Taliban, Rashid Dostum’s group (the Northern Alliance) and Persian-speakers should be encouraged to get engaged in the political process to return peace and stability Afghanistan. As I said, Turkey can play the role of negotiator," he underlined.
For Klasra, what Turkey should do when it actually holds the mediator position "is to convince regional powers to back the political process in Afghanistan, giving Afghans a right to choose their leaders in upcoming elections. Regional powers need to support whatever common Afghans choose to lead them."
Previously, the U.S. has urged the Taliban to sit at the table with the Afghan government as well, only to be rejected by the group by calling the Kabul administration a "puppet regime." Still, there have been two talks between the two parties since this initial rejection. The first one took place in July 2019, in Doha and the second one was in Moscow.
Adding to the fact that Turkey had neither expressed a hostile position toward the Taliban nor had it been particularly supportive of the Afghan government, Goudsouzian expressed that the country also had significant investments in Afghanistan and troops on the ground as part of NATO.
"As the only Muslim nation with troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission, it is generally agreed that the Turkish troops are regarded differently than other foreign troops. They enjoy a special status; as fellow Muslims, the Turkish troops are not seen as 'foreign invaders,'" Goudsouzian said, emphasizing that a greater role played by Turkey, as a natural player in the landscape, could be of use to the Americans to safeguard their interests as well.
The U.S. entered Afghanistan after 9/11 when the twin towers were hit by Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaeda terrorist group, who was based in Afghanistan. Although refusing to take part in the U.S. invasion of the country, Turkey sent its soldiers to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission, which ended in 2017 but maintains a small presence in the country as a training force.
"The influence of the Turkish Republic in Afghanistan goes back a century, to the days of Amanullah Khan in the early 1900s when the nascent republic, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was seen as a model for progressive Muslim societies," Goudsouzian expressed, referring to the days when Turkey was seen as a role model.
"Several Afghan women were sent for higher education to Turkey in the late 1920s onward. In fact, Turkish education remains prestigious for Afghan families today. There are also the ethnic links through the Uzbek minority in Afghanistan and the special attention Turkey accords to Turkic people everywhere in the world," she added.
Klasra also pointed at the long history of the ties, stating that the "overall image of Turkey in Afghanistan is excellent."
"Afghanistan was only the second after the Soviet Union to recognize the new Turkish Republic. Historically, Turkey and Afghanistan enjoy a bond of Muslim brotherhood. Since 2001, Turkey has made its presence felt across Afghanistan by building schools, hospitals, dispensaries," he highlighted.
Even though they are located nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) apart, Afghanistan and Turkey enjoy close ties dating back to the early years of the Republic of Turkey.
Turkey was the first country to open a diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1921, and both Muslim-majority countries maintain deep cultural ties dating back to the Turkic rule of Afghanistan until the 12th century.
Turkish soft power effective
"Although Turkey’s influence may not be as palpable in Afghanistan as it may once have been, it has remained consistent over the years. Many Afghan military officers, for instance, have been trained by Turkey," Goudsouzian emphasized.
Referring to the country's interest in pushing a leadership role in the Muslim world, especially during the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) era, Goudsouzian mentioned the soft power that Turkey has managed to establish over Afghanistan in this process.
"Turkey’s efforts in terms of humanitarian efforts and education across the Muslim world have contributed to its rising influence on a social and cultural level, namely the global success of its soap operas. War-weary Afghans have also tuned in to Turkish dramas, which have proven to be culturally appropriate alternatives to Bollywood’s song-and-dance escapism and Hollywood’s 'America saves the world' propaganda," she said.
After emerging as a movement from northern Pakistan following the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the Taliban gained a quick success in the country and enjoyed five years in political power until the U.S. invasion in 2001. In the following 18 years, there have been numerous conflicts, killings and casualties from all the parties, including the civilians.
According to the U.N. Assistance Mission's data, since 2009, more than 100,000 Afghans have been killed in the various raging conflicts. The U.S., meanwhile, has lost more than 2,400 troops to a war costing almost $1 trillion.
Considering these figures, according to Klasra, the deal is "an excellent step, in fact, a landmark deal."
"It’s a win-win deal for both the U.S. and the Taliban," Klasra said, while also expressing doubt over whether this deal would be enough to bring peace back to the region since the suffering of Afghans still continues.
Trump aims to fulfill election promises
Aside from all the casualties and costs, according to the experts, the real pushing factor for the U.S. in taking this step was the upcoming presidential elections and President Donald Trump's former promises on long-lasting, "dumb" wars.
"The United States wants to end the longest war in its history," Goudsouzian said.
"An overwhelming desire to withdraw from “dumb wars” overseas, a mantra often repeated by U.S. President Donald Trump. It was his campaign promise in 2016, and now as he campaigns for a second term, he seeks to deliver on that promise. Also, proponents of a deal with the Taliban have pointed out that the Taliban was never designated as a terror group in the U.S. and that the Taliban have rather been viewed as insurgents against a U.S. ally," she continued.
When the U.S. first entered Afghanistan, there were 1,000 soldiers on the ground. The number reached 10,000 in just two years, and in 2008, then-U.S. President George W. Bush sent 50,000 troops to the war-torn country. President Barrack Obama then sent another 30,000 to fight both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and by 2010, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan increased to almost 100,000. Obama became the first U.S. leader to express his intention to withdraw from the country in 2011. Since then, the number of troops has been reduced gradually and currently stands at 8,400.
Although a new round of talks is expected to be around the corner thanks to the deal, for Goudsouzian, there are still many obstacles for Afghanistan to finally celebrate peace and stability.
"Let’s be clear," she said, "The U.S.-Taliban deal is not a peace deal. It is a withdrawal deal. It does not offer any guarantees for peace in Afghanistan aside from ushering the Taliban back into the legitimate playing field. And the Taliban continue to reject the legitimacy of the elected Afghan government. This does not bode well."
There are also conflicts among the administrative circles of the country. The Trump administration slashed $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan on Tuesday and threatened further reductions in all forms of cooperation after the country's rival leaders failed to agree on forming a new government. The decision to cut the aid was made on Monday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he made an unannounced, urgent visit to Kabul to meet with Ghani and Abdullah, who have each declared themselves president of the country after disputed elections last year. Pompeo had hoped to break the deadlock but was unable to. In an unusually harsh statement, Pompeo slammed the two men for being unable to work together and threatening a potential peace deal that could end America's longest-running conflict.
"The deal was hailed as 'historic' and a step toward reconciliation after nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan but the ink was barely dry when a Taliban spokesman announced that the group would resume its attacks on Afghan government forces," Goudsouzian added.
Shaky history of U.S.- Taliban talks
As a matter of fact, the road to the deal was similarly full of obstacles, since the U.S. and Taliban have a long, shaky history of relations that is hard to rely on. Even as negotiations on the deal were ongoing, violence continued to terrorize Afghanistan. In 2019, between the months of July and September, 1,174 people were killed in attacks, a rate 42% higher than the previous year's over the same period. The data provided by the U.S. Central Command Combined Air Operations Center states that again in 2019, the U.S. dropped 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan, a number more than any in the past decade.
Referring to the recent developments in bilateral ties as "a rebranding of the Taliban," Goudsouzian stated that after 18 years of a bad reputation, thanks to this deal, the international perspective over the Taliban is being changed.
"Nearly two decades after they were ousted from power, today’s Taliban have a far better understanding of how to market themselves to a gullible world. In the early days, the media focus was on Taliban atrocities, human rights violations and their partnership with al-Qaeda. These days, the focus has been on the elusive search for peace with a 'transformed' Taliban," she said, emphasizing that they were "no longer terrorists, but partners."
According to Klasra, this is a major chance for the Taliban since it has been "striving hard for political recognition."
"They must be thankful to Trump and his administration for striking a ‘peace deal’ which has recognized them as a political force. Since this deal has UN backing, that means the Taliban have gained more from the deal. They have been recognized as a political force globally," he explained.
On top of these violent acts, Trump ended the talks in September 2019 for the killing of a U.S. soldier and subsequently canceled a secret meeting in Camp David that was scheduled to take place with both Taliban and Afghan president. Following the decision, the Taliban's spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid spoke to Al Jazeera, saying that Washington "will regret" its move.
"What accounts for this change?" Goudsouzian asked, referring to the U.S. policy shift toward the Taliban.
"Factors certainly include 18 years of slow political progress, an 18-year war with little tangible progress, 18 years of international assistance with little to show, waning public support at home and a patient Taliban indifferent to these same factors," she said.
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