By Lark Escobar.
The Turkish military was involved as NATO partners and allies of Afghanistan in many of the training missions there over the last 20 years. The Turkish embassy managed to host lavish events and create a sense of normalcy as if there was not a war banging on just beyond the complex walls.
During my deployment, it was often said that we hoped the budding Afghan administration would lead the country down the path of modern Turkey (pre-Erdogan’s pivot), and the Afghan justice system is an iteration of the Ottoman model- a testament to both past and present influences and shared interests.
The fiasco of the US withdrawal created a power vacuum regarding key allies for the country, leaving only Turkey as a NATO member with a presence in-country. Turkey was able to bid for the chance to take over running the international airport in Kabul, although this ultimately fell through. Had it worked, Turkey would have been able to gate-keep trade in and out of the country (which would have been preferable to the current arrangement of the Taliban controlling incoming aid), and also the movement of people. The post-US withdrawal opportunity for Turkey has involved directly engaging with the Taliban, a relationship that has paid off – quite literally – as is the case with the 22% increase in trade between the countries in 2022. The opportunity also enables Turkey to display its ability to broker negotiations between the US and the Taliban, or so Ankara seems to hope. In January 2022, Turkey was able to resume commercial flights between the two countries.
Despite Turkish ambitions and the allyship, the Turkish authorities have been struggling to deal with Afghan arrivals, both those populations with valid visas and those entering the country without documents. Afghans entering on valid visas find they are unable to renew them and face deportation even if they have the means to remain in the country and have not done anything unlawful. The deportation process has been intense. By June of 2022, 79 flights carrying 18,000 Afghans were charted to return Afghans fleeing the Taliban back to the airport in Kabul– directly into the hands of the Taliban. These deportees were coerced into signing documents that stated they were departing the country voluntarily, though they had conveyed fears of violent persecution under the Taliban and were denied the opportunity to apply to remain. According to Amnesty International, deportees were held in six Turkish detention centers- which were partially funded by the European Union.
A popular Turkish domestic political talking point is to scapegoat the economic decline under Erdogan’s failed policies on the sizable refugee population (à la populist movements like the one that led to Brexit) – and according to UNHCR, Turkey does already host the largest refugee population in the world. Popular support for this posture is confirmed in public opinion polls- 78% of Turks polled want the refugees to exit the country. There is no popular political will to ensure these fellow Muslims and former military partners have a way to stay alive.
Afghans embark on dangerous journeys to reach Turkey – with the hope of being able to avail their human right to apply for asylum. Amnesty International interviewed Afghans recently deported from Turkey. “One Afghan man… had witnessed the killings of three teenage boys by Turkish security forces. Other witnesses described the injury of six men and three boys by Turkish security forces.” Further, Amnesty International interviewed two other Afghan men who had sustained gunshot wounds at the Turkish border when they were attempting to cross the border. Despite the dangers, around 300,000 Afghans have sought refuge in Turkey since the US withdrawal and subsequent Taliban take-over, many of whom are members of the former Afghan National Army who fought against the Taliban and sincerely anticipated the reality of violent retribution.
In mid-October 2022, reports of abuse during deportation proceedings spiked. In one case, 92 Afghan nationals were detained, stripped, and pushed across the Greek border, which UNHCR and Human Rights Watch condemned. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures that every person has the right to seek asylum (Article 14), cross borders (Article 13), and without persecution based on ethnicity, religion, or national origin (Article 2). Afghan nationals have the right to seek asylum in Turkey and be treated with dignity. In January 2023, new reports emerged of trouble for Afghans in Turkey. Reporter Afshin Ismaeli shared video evidence across social media platforms on January 3rd of Afghans being brutalized. In mid-January, there was another report of Turkish gangs violently leveraging Afghans for ransom payments.
As Turkey dabbles with its modest ability to facilitate US-Taliban negotiations, particularly on the front of Afghanistan reconstruction, it cannot sacrifice Afghans in danger in the process. Shared history and long brotherhood must prevail in forging a logical and responsible path forward – one that does not harm Afghans. Turkey must show it is a true friend to the Afghan people and not just a friend in name only; doing so will bolster Turkey’s legitimacy as a leader and power broker in the geopolitical landscape.
Author: Lark Escobar is a graduate student in the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University (a joint program with Harvard University). She deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 where she worked on training programs for the Afghan National Army (including the Afghan Air Force) and Afghan National Police. Lark has been involved in the Afghan Evac effort since mid-August 2021.