Afghanistan security poses potential litmus test of Russio-Turkish rivalry

Foreign engagement in Afghanistan’s stability has been ongoing. This conference was held in 2010. 

Foreign proxy rivalries expected as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan 

By Rachel Brooks

June 1, 2021 

News analysis, commentary 

Opinions expressed in this commentary are attributed solely to the author. 

Monday, the pro-Turkish-government media outlet Daily Sabah reported that Turkey’s foreign ministry is increasing its ties with Afghanistan. This is a welcome proposal on the part of Afghani President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, whose country has undergone a spike in Taliban activity. Turkey reports that it had pledged to host the anticipated high-level international peace conference in April at the United States’ request. The Taliban declined to attend. 

Turkey has since initiated talks with Afghani top officials through its newly-minted Ambassador to Afghanistan Cihad Erginay. Erginay met with the Afghani State Minister for Peace S. Sadat Mansoor Naderi in Kabul along with other officials. 

“Pleasure to meet with @SadatNaderi and his team. Wished him success and assured him of Turkey’s support for the peace process incl. Istanbul Conference” wrote the Turkish Embassy of Kabul on June 1.  

Naderi likewise commended Turkey for its 20-year support of the Afghanistan government during the protracted civil conflict within the nation. 

“Pleasure meeting the new Turkish Ambassador @cerginay @turkembkabul Afghanistan has a deep historical relationship with Turkey. We are in support of the Istanbul conference to help the ongoing Doha process. We appreciate Turkey’s support of the past two decades and future commitment,” wrote Naderi via Twitter. 

As the United States and its regional NATO partners prepare their official departure from the region, Turkey moves to increase its presence. At the same time, Russia rattles the saber over Central Asia, to show that it will not be threatened by the potential vacuum the U.S. absence will create. 

Nikkei Asia reported on May 27 that Russia is “increasing military support for its Central Asian neighbors” as the U.S. deadline for troop removal approaches. Moscow has stated that this move is to support Central Asian states from the incursion of terrorist groups and proxy groups. 

The Turkish vested interest in the region is influenced, in part, by the efforts of reconciliation between the United States and its NATO-ally. Modern Diplomacy wrote that the United States had “extended an olive branch” to Turkey to prevent it from making a weapon’s contract deal with Russia and its S-400 missile defense system. On May 29, Turkish media outlet Ahval wrote that the United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Ruth Sherman had proposed to the Turkish government that the Russian missile system should be replaced. The U.S. is expected to propose the United States “Patriot” system to Turkey, to ease deteriorating relations. The United States is at a juncture where it must distinguish its allies as it is at a “vital juncture” in dealing with China and Russia. The U.S. has signaled that it is interested in a more constructive relationship with Russia. 

While the United States appears to signal an intention to host a more constructive relationship with both Russia and Turkey, the mediation efforts alone do not guarantee stability. The Turkish-Russian diplomatic relationship is itself flawed. Al-Monitor wrote in April that the Turkish-Russian diplomatic relationship is marked more by rivalry than it is by the “transactional partnership” that is said to categorize it. Turkey and Russia appear to be devolving into their traditional historical rivalries, and as Russia’s foreign policy maintains its aggressive stance, Afghanistan is one such front where instability will present a litmus test between rivalry and transactional “partnership of convenience.” 

Al-Monitor cited the Ukraine Donbas regional crisis and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Karabakh as reasons for increased suspicion between Turkey and Russia. In many theaters, Turkey and Russia continue to back opposing sides. Likewise, with the Sedat Peker video scandal, Turkey’s government has come under the scrutiny of voicing one agenda publicly but being expected of financing criminal enterprise. Case in point, Turkey has been accused by Peker of diverting humanitarian aid to Syrian Turkmen minorities to Islamist insurgencies in the Syria conflict. This cloud of suspicion has the potential for the interregional political ripple effect.  

In reference to Russia’s regional priorities, Andrei Serenko, head of the Center for the Study of Modern Afghanistan, was interviewed by Nikkei Asia. Serenko states that, for Russia, Afghanistan’s status is a primary security concern. 

“Russia is primarily interested in strengthening its military and political clout in Central Asia, the soft underbelly of the Russian Federation,” said Serenko, as he was initially quoted by Nikkei Asia. 

“The situation in Afghanistan is viewed first and foremost as a threat capable of jeopardizing Russia’s influence in the region.” 

The Diplomat noted that U.S. withdrawal had invigorated the Russian “multifaceted” security interests it maintains with members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The CSTO includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as members, but does not include Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The region’s response to the U.S. withdrawal prompted the Russian Defense Ministry to take additional steps. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly visited Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to secure agreements that the two nations would cooperate with the CSTO should instability from Afghanistan erupt and spill over into the neighbors of the region. 

Afghanistan is caught in between the interests of its Turkish counterpart and the defense interests of Russia. The Defense Post wrote on May 31 that Russia is poised to provide Afghanistan with weapons. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Russia, Said Tayeb Jawad stated that his country is prepared to purchase “high powered” weapons and equipment from the Russian government, wrote The Defense Post. This procurement relationship solidifies as the U.S. withdrawal accelerates. Afghanistan likewise seeks Russian expertise to train its military and forces. 

“We are hoping that Russia will consider repairing the existing Russian equipment, especially helicopters,” said Ambassador Jawad, as he was quoted by the Russian government media agency TASS. 

The political contingencies of a simultaneous Russian and Turkish presence in Afghanistan are high, and as the U.S. withdrawals armed troops, it is under a pressure to maintain diplomacy and not to leave Afghanistan in a vacuum of the western presence that has moderated its conflict for two decades.