The Diplomatic Observer has carried out an interview with Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, President of ANKASAM, on the subject of Afghanistan.
The Diplomatic Observer: Fighting in Afghanistan has been going on for more than 40 years now. How did the process unroll after the Soviet invasion of December 24th 1979? What was the aim?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: Afghanistan occupies place in a significant location that allows for transit between Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East and is given special importance in all geopolitical theories. Therefore, it is believed that the power than can dominate Afghanistan can become the leading power in the other regions. In addition to traditional theories such as Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and Nicolas J. Spykman’s Rimland Theory, the Encirclement Theory of George Kennan, a theoretician during the Cold War, also emphasises the significance of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Conflict of Civilisations thesis, one of the most significant modern geopolitical approaches to be shaped by the idea of the New World Order, also takes a close interest in Afghanistan.
Due to these approaches, Afghanistan constituted the central playing area of the Great Game between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. Today, the country is the sire of the current New Great Game.
Known for instability for over forty years, Afghanistan has witnessed two major invasions. The USSR invaded Afghanistan on December 24th 1979. With this invasion, the Second Great Game made its mark on the Cold War. On October 7th 2001, the US invasion of Afghanistan began, setting off the Third Great Game we are now witnessing and which most of us call the New Great Game.
Let us first talk about the Soviet occupation. The fundamental reason for the occupation was that the communists in Afghanistan who had come to power after toppling Mohammed Daoud Khan, had come up against strong popular opposition. Under the circumstances, the communists asked for Moscow’s help and their request was not turned down by the USSR. Undoubtedly, this is the superficial reason for the occupation. In the background, there are two important geopolitical reasons. The first was the USSR’s aim of spreading communism. The second was gaining access to the Indian Ocean. During this period, Moscow wanted to play an influential role along the Central Asia- South Asia axis.
The Afghan mujahidin engaged in resistance against the occupation and along with the effects of the USA’s Green Belt Strategy, Moscow failed to reach its aims. The result was the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan on February 15th 1989. Although the USSR supported the government of Dr. Najibullah following the withdrawal, the Soviet-backed government did not stay in power for long. The mujahidin, who had forced the USSR to withdraw, could not share power among themselves and civil war erupted in Afghanistan.
It was under these circumstances than the Taleban lead by Mullah Omar established their control over 90 per cent of the country with the promise of ending the civil war. Initially employing milder rhetoric, the Taleban gained the support of the Afghan people who had expectations for an end to the civil war. However, the Taleban soon turned to radical politics. It was found that the Taleban had connections with the terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda. Following the September 11th 2001 attacks, the USA demanded the handover of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin, but the request was refused. This led to the occupation. On October 7th 2001, then US President George W. Bush started the American occupation known as Operation Enduring Freedom, as part of his Doctrine of Pre-emptive Self-Defence.
In fact, Washington saw Afghanistan as its inroad to domination of Eurasia and occupied the country for this reason. The USA projected that it could further centralise its global leadership by maintaining a presence in Afghanistan.
The idea was that the USA would increase its influence in post-Soviet Central Asia and block the rise of China through its presence in Afghanistan.
In the post-Taleban period, it was seen that Washington, which had established the new order in Afghanistan through the framework of the Bonn and Tokyo conferences was unable to provide a lasting peace, the Afghan governments were marred by corruption and economic problems were not resolved. Furthermore, the Taleban continued to fight. Running a hit-and-run guerrilla campaign, the Taleban caused heavy losses to US and Afghan Army troops.
The deaths of civilians in US operations against the Taleban increased the Afghan people’s sympathy for the Taleban. In sum, throughout the 20 years of occupation, the USA could not destroy the Taleban. During the process, the cost of the occupation put a strain on the US economy and the war became unsustainable. Having taken the decision to withdraw under the circumstances, the USA accepted the Taleban which it once tried to topple as a counterpart in discussions and on February 29th 2020, the Doha Agreement was signed. On August 31st 2021, the USA withdrew from Afghanistan.
Thinking that war is too costly, the USA now intends to destabilise the region using the chaos and limit the power of its rivals through instability in this region. The USA’s expectation is for radicalisation that will seep into China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Zone through the Wakhan Corridor to destabilise China; and for the Central Asia- Russia route to turn into a field for proxy wars. It may be foreseen that the South Asia geography will be included into this over China, as well as India and Pakistan through Kashmir. At ANKASAM, we try to draw attention to developments that might lead to chaos in the region in our publications.
The Diplomatic Observer: What were the conditions that allowed for the Taleban to grow stronger and eventually take over power in Afghanistan? Was it the Deobandi Madrassa education, the economy or the concerns over the future of younger generations who only knew war?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: The USA being unable to establish a healthy political system despite occupying Afghanistan is the primary reason why the Taleban came back stronger. The economic problems in Afghanistan could not be overcome throughout this time and the US-backed governments became notorious for corruption. The situation was such that the most minor business at public organisations depended on bribery.
Furthermore, the aid that was provided was not transformed into investment and therefore created no new jobs. This shook the confidence of the Afghan people, especially the young, in the newly established system. The country could neither show any instances of a robustly functioning democracy. The system came to the brink of collapse three times over the 20-year long occupation period. After the 2009, 2014 and 2019 elections, parties refused to recognise the results due to claims of vote fraud.
Another factor that made the Taleban’s job easier was the USA establishing the Afghan army as a professional army without ideological motivation that was consequently weak.
It is also up for debate whether the USA ever wanted to destroy the Taleban. There was no significant combating of the main sources of income for the Taleban. The Taleban continued to trade in drugs, collect taxes under the guise of alms and ran some mines in Afghanistan. All this stooped it from running up against any financial problems.
On the other hand, the Taleban has some weight with at least some groups within Afghan society. Afghans are generally educated at madrassas. One may talk of two schools of madrassas. The first are the Maududi madrassas, which teach a moderate interpretation of Islam. The second is the Deobandi school, which furnishes popular support for the Taleban. The Deobandi madrassas are actually religious schools that were first established in India and later moved to Pakistan upon its independence. The Deobandi have internalised a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam.
During the war against the Soviet Union, some of the mujahidin educated at Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan formed the core of the Taleban, while others had a warm outlook on the group. People educated under the Taleban government were educated along the precepts of the Deobandi school of thought. Therefore, a pro-Taleban section of Afghan society came into being. Therefore, in addition to the security problems, increasing socio-economic issues, bad government and the failure of the American occupation caused concern for the future in the younger generation. This in turn led to the Taleban fining fertile ground. The people of Afghanistan, especially the young and women, no longer want to live amidst warfare, poverty and corruption. The wariness caused by the civil war in the country and the failure of the alternatives formed the ground for the rise of the Taleban.
The Diplomatic Observer: A meeting of the Loya Jirga (the Grand Assembly) of tribes in Afghanistan was held in 2020. Peace talks with the Taleban was the main item on the agenda. With the Taleban in power, what stance will the Loya Jirga adopt?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: The Loya Jirga is an assembly that was made prominent by the governments established after the occupation. It was intended to create alliances of tribes and to increase the legitimacy of the government. However, the assembly does not have permanent members. It is an assembly that consists of tribal leaders invited by the government. Therefore, it should not be expected of the Loya Jirga to adopt a uniform stance either for or against the Taleban. For this reason, it is thought the assembly will have no significant influence in the coming period. The main thing to look out for is for the Taleban to establish the founding assembly of mullahs.
The Diplomatic Observer: Given the state of the Afghan economy, how successful can the Taleban hope to be in power? Will drugs production and trafficking increase further under the Taleban? It is well known the USA failed at preventing them.
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: Given economic conditions in Afghanistan, one could say that the Taleban do not have an easy job. The country is suffering from significant unemployment. Many sectors, especially banking, are facing grave problems following the withdrawal of American elements. Due to uncertainty at state organisations, there have been issues with pay. The most important problem is that most of the qualified labour force have emigrated. The majority of people who may have been employed in the private sector or in public organisations for the development of Afghanistan have migrated to countries such as the USA, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. Therefore the Taleban now face their main test with the economy. Given the image of the Taleban, it will be difficult to attract foreign investors. Foreign aid to Afghanistan has also been cut.
It is seen that in order to overcome these problems, the Taleban are attaching special significance to their relations with China. In this context, the Taleban will join a Belt-and-Road Project in line with Beijing’s expectations and will demand that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor be expanded to Afghanistan. This might make it possible to receive aid and investment for infrastructure and the economy. However, the pivot to China may result in more severe US sanctions. This will make the economic outlook worse.
There are no major differences for drug trade figures before and after the US withdrawal. At this point, one should be critical of the USA’s failure in preventing the drug trade. The USA-UK duo have cooperated with the Taleban on this matter. Helmand in southern Afghanistan is well known as the centre of drugs production. Given these developments, I may add that drugs in Afghanistan will remain an important item on the agenda.
The Diplomatic Observer: How long will the flow of migrants from Afghanistan following the Taleban takeover last? What can Turkey do about this? What could be its effects on Turkey?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: The main reason for the outflow of migrants from Afghanistan is the lack of security and people’s lack of confidence in the process. Therefore, the only way to prevent Afghans from migrating to other countries is to establish a stable order in the country. This necessitates avoiding any processes that may radicalise the Taleban. It is essential for the Taleban to be involved in international cooperation. To this end, Turkey needs to take on an active role in the Afghan Peace Process. It is especially important for those country that will be affected by the instability in and the migration from Afghanistan to cooperate. The issue of migrants is not just an issue for Turkey, but also for the EU and the West in the wider sense. It is important for aid to Afghanistan to continue. The priority matter is to stop migration in Afghanistan, that is to day the alleviation of push factors. Otherwise, it is inevitable for Turkey to be negatively affected by the wave of migration.
Migration has many dimensions; humanitarian, economic and security. The first of these dimensions requires that we keep in mind migrants are human beings who are fleeing war for their lives and to prioritise humanitarian diplomacy. Turkey’s approach to people who had to flee their homes during the Syrian Civil War was guided by such concerns. In fact, Turkey pushed its limits economically. Turkey thinks that a new wave of migrants might be more than it can handle. The security dimension is far more important. Many terrorist elements crossed the border along with Syrian migrants. This resulted in bomb attacks in Turkey’s large cities and Turkey lost many of its citizens to attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (DAESH) within its own borders. It is probable that groups of Afghan migrants will be infiltrated by members of terrorist organisations such as DAESH and Al-Qaeda.
Therefore, a conference on the new state-building process in Afghanistan in which Turkey will be joined by the EU seems inevitable. As ANKASAM, we have shared our concrete proposals on this matter.
The Diplomatic Observer: What could be the perspective of Afghanistan’s neighbours on the new regime and their mutual interests?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: Afghanistan has Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan and China as its neighbours. These states all share the same concern for security. They are afraid that the radicalisation in Afghanistan will seep into their own territory. Therefore, Afghanistan’s neighbouring states all desire a stable order to be established in Afghanistan. We should discuss the concerns and expectations of these countries separately.
1. Tajikistan: Tajikistan is one of the Central Asian states that is concerned with radicalisation. Therefore, the deployment of Ensarullah militia, which Dushanbe defines as a terrorist group, along the border between the two countries is a cause for concern for Tajikistan. Dushanbe is concerned that the Taleban may increase radicalisation. It is afraid that this will be reflected on its own territory. The prospect of radicalisation increasing instability in the Fergana Valley also gives Dushanbe pause. These concerns are accompanied by the prospect of migration. Increasing violence in Afghanistan will lead to increased migrants for countries in the region such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Lack of security caused by migration may in turn result emigration among the host populations of these countries. Tajikistan is also in a bind about recognising the Taleban regime. Dushanbe currently recognises Emrullah Salih, who has joined the Panjshir Resistance, as the head of state of Afghanistan and hopes for the Northern Alliance to be re-established under Salih and Ahmad Masoud and to make the maximum gains in the Taleban period.
2. Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan has Permanent Neutrality Status and therefore, though it is not directly party to problems in the region, it has security concerns. Turkmenistan is for preventing radicalisation. It also wants to alleviate the risk of uncontrolled migration and the problems it may lead to. Therefore, Turkmenistan is making efforts to stop migration at the source. This leads to the establishment of contact with the Taleban and various other groups. In this sense, Turkmenistan is for the establishment of a peaceful order in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is undertaking significant activities to establish stability, especially by providing humanitarian aid.
3. Uzbekistan: Tashkent is running a constructive policy in Afghanistan and is maintaining contact with the parties to contribute to peace. Tashkent’s efforts are underscored by the aims of bringing Taleban to cooperate and to mitigate the rise of terrorism and radicalisation. Tashkent thinks that radicalisation will lead to receiving migrants, as well as emigration of the host population. Furthermore, Uzbekistan is concerned that radical groups that are present as cells in Afghanistan will cause instability centred in Fergana.
4. Iran: Another actor that is concerned about Afghan migrants and does not think it could put up with a wave of migration is Iran. Iran has been receiving migrants from Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation. This leads to Iran being for stability in Afghanistan. Something that should not be overlooked is the Taleban office in Mashhad in Iran. Iran also attaches importance to Tajikistan due to the Farsi identity. Therefore, it has not been cold towards Dushanbe’s support for Ahmad Masoud. Iran also enjoys good relations with the Hazaras on sectarian grounds.
5. Pakistan: Islamabad has significant influence over the Taleban. Therefore, Islamabad is trying to get the international community to recognise the Taleban and is hosting meetings of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Pakistan also wants the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to be extended to Afghanistan, which it believes will make its position more central. Meanwhile, Islamabad is trying to establish relations with the Taleban to prevent claims for Pashtunistan. Islamabad is also concerned that developments in Afghanistan could have ramification in Kashmir and that this would deepen the regional chaos. Therefore Pakistan is trying to get the Taleban to cooperate.
6. China: China’s main concern about the Taleban government is that the radicalisation could influence Muslims in its Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Zone over the Wakhan Corridor and lead to a process that might destabilise China. For this reason Beijing wants to bring Taleban into cooperation and to limit radicalisation. The Taleban’s position in government in Afghanistan depends on solutions to economic problems. The Taleban therefore need Chinese investment. It is therefore probable for the Taleban to act in line with Beijing’s expectations. The Taleban has already issued a promise to China concerning Muslims in China. Also, China wants to fill in the power vacuum as part of its target of global leadership and to become the main actor along the Central-South Asia axis.
The Diplomatic Observer: What sort of message could be sent out to EU countries to prevent a wave of migrants from Afghanistan?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: The EU’s migration policy approach foresees one or more states shouldering the burden of migrants in exchange for financial support. However, as seen in the example of the Syrian Civil War, the EU has not lived up to its promises and provided the necessary support. Therefore, although the EU will bring up a similar approach for Afghan migrants, it can be said that Turkey will adopt a clear stance on this matter based on past experiences. Therefore, Turkey should declare that it will implement an Open Doors Policy should it face an uncontrolled wave of migration and invite the EU to take on greater responsibilities. If the EU does not comply, it should be prepared to face the consequences.
The Diplomatic Observer: How can EU countries benefit from Turley’s experiences resulting from the Syrian crisis and what sort of additional measures can Turkey take to prevent a wave of irregular migration?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: For the EU, Turkey is critical barrier preventing migration movements to the West. Therefore the EU will ask for Turkey to accept migrants in exchange for certain payments, as it did with the Resettlement Agreement signed during the Syrian Civil War. This is not acceptable for Turkey. Given the public reaction the Resettlement Agreement drew in Turkey, the EU will have to come up with a more effective step that is convincing to the Turkish public. In addition, the EU needs to take steps to reassure Turkey and to adopt a more constructive and amicable stance in regional crises that have become synonymous with Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean and the France-Greece duo. The EU should also realise the obligations it has issued to Turkey for the membership process.
The Diplomatic Observer: Can Turkey implement an Open Doors policy for Afghan refugees if it is not given sufficient support by EU countries?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: Based on the example of Syrian migrants, it may be thought that the EU will not give Turkey sufficient support for Afghan migrants. Therefore Turkey can allow migrants to reach Europe as their natural destination by implementing and Open Doors policy I mentioned earlier. Running such a policy may draw significant reaction from the EU. However, this is not just Turkey’s problem, but of humanity’s as a whole. The EU should take on responsibility. The EU should not pressure Turkey further, but develop a participatory and distributive strategy.
The Diplomatic Observer: To what extent will the USA support Turkey on Afghan migrants?
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol: Unlike the EU, the USA is not a target destination for migration waves. It is difficult for migrants to make the trans-Atlantic crossing. This was already a factor in the USA deciding to withdraw from Afghanistan without heeding the consequences much and proceeding with this decision. Therefore, any support from Washington concerning migration will be limited to symbolic financial support. On the other hand, it is possible for the USA to leverage its influence over the EU to ensure that the EU takes on greater responsibility.