South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Turkey Looks to Expand Footprint in Afghanistan

Ankara is well positioned to play key roles after the U.S. withdrawal.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the NATO summit.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the NATO summit at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on June 14. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Turkey looks to play a bigger role in Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal, NATO explores the possibility of training Afghan troops in Qatar, and Pakistan unveils its budget for the next fiscal year.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: Turkey looks to play a bigger role in Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal, NATO explores the possibility of training Afghan troops in Qatar, and Pakistan unveils its budget for the next fiscal year.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

The Turkey Factor in Afghanistan

Much of the debate about which countries will seek to supplant U.S. influence in Afghanistan when it fully withdraws has focused on its rivals: China, Iran, and Russia. Analysts have said less about Turkey, which clashes with the United States over Russia and Middle East policy but remains a NATO ally. But recent developments suggest Ankara could have future roles in diplomacy and security in Kabul.

In addition to training Afghan soldiers, Turkey has long provided security at Kabul’s airport and has offered to continue doing so if it receives financial support from the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, discussed the issue when they met at a NATO summit in Brussels this week, but they did not reach an agreement.

Turkey’s airport security offer may be in part a goodwill measure to convince Washington to ease sanctions on Ankara after its acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and allow it back into a U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program. In a Tuesday media briefing, an anonymous Biden administration official denied any connection between the S-400 deal and Turkish airport security in Kabul.

The Taliban have rejected a Turkish security presence at the airport following the United States’ withdrawal. However, this week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced the alliance had agreed to transitional funding for the airport and hinted at a key Turkish role, suggesting negotiations are continuing.

Securing Kabul’s airport is a critical post-withdrawal objective for NATO: The airport is a key entry point for diplomats and aid workers, and the spikes in violence that are likely to follow full U.S. withdrawal underscore its critical role as an evacuation point.

Turkey’s non-security role in Afghanistan has more legs. It’s well positioned to take on a third-party role in the floundering peace process, as it has already hosted meetings between the Taliban and Afghan political leaders. Back in 2010, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed the idea of Turkey-sponsored peace talks.

Ankara also has warm relations with both Kabul and the Taliban. It accepted a Biden administration request to host a peace conference with the Taliban in April, although it was canceled when the group refused to attend. Turkey also has deep ties to key regional players China and Pakistan, and it helped found the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, an Afghanistan-focused regional organization launched in 2011.

As part of a trilateral forum with Islamabad and Kabul, Ankara could also mediate tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is allied with the Taliban. The United States has sought to play a similar rule, seeing stronger Afghan-Pakistani ties as key to helping the Afghan peace process.

There are limits to Turkey’s future role in Afghanistan. Continued tensions with Washington over the S-400 deal could constrain its diplomatic efforts, and the Taliban will limit Turkey’s security role. More pressing priorities closer to home, especially in Syria and Iraq, will constrain the policy space the Turkish government is willing to allocate to Afghanistan.

But for the United States, any stepped-up post-withdrawal role for a NATO ally would be consequential—even one it clashes with.

What We’re Following

NATO pursues Qatar base. Kabul airport security isn’t the only item on NATO’s Afghanistan agenda this week. Reuters reported alliance members have approached Qatar about providing NATO with a base to train Afghan forces, with the United Kingdom, the United States, and Turkey participating. NATO has already indicated its desire to continue its training and advising mission in Afghanistan through remote channels and in third countries.

Qatar is home to the Taliban’s political office and the venue for recent talks among the insurgents, the U.S. government, and, more recently, the Afghan government. A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters Afghan soldiers trained abroad “will not be trusted by us.” But the Taliban’s 2020 agreement with the United States says nothing about training Afghan forces abroad, so the group has no grounds to reject such an arrangement.

Pakistan unveils budget. Last Friday, Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin presented encouraging new economic data. Despite the pandemic, the country’s GDP grew nearly 4 percent in the first nine months of the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ends this month—notably higher than earlier targets of 2.1 percent. Tarin attributed this success to strong performances from Pakistan’s industrial and services sectors.

Tarin also unveiled the government’s budget for the next fiscal year, setting a GDP growth target of 4.8 percent. Budget highlights include increased development spending, 10 percent raises for government employees, and emergency agriculture spending. But such generous spending isn’t ensured, given that Pakistan’s participation in an International Monetary Fund bailout program may necessitate more austerity.

Pakistan economy experts also warn this budget won’t address the country’s long-standing structural constraints, including its inability to generate tax revenue.

India-China border clash anniversary. Monday marked one year since 20 Indian and five Chinese soldiers were killed in a clash in the disputed border region of Ladakh, the deadliest conflict between the countries in more than 40 years. The incident exposed India’s vulnerabilities in the region, likely prompting New Delhi to pursue a border truce with Pakistan in February to dedicate attention to its border with China.

On Sunday, the Hindu reported Chinese soldiers remain mobilized along the disputed border even months after the Chinese military disengaged from areas near the clash. Indian government sources fear they could remain hunkered down into the winter.

Under the Radar

If you didn’t know about a high-level call earlier this month between the U.S. Defense Department’s number-two official and the foreign minister of the Maldives, you’re not the only one. But the exchange between Colin Kahl and Abdulla Shahid, which addressed U.S. pandemic assistance and common interests in the Indo-Pacific region, may hint at an emerging Biden administration policy in South Asia.

Most of the administration’s high-level engagements in the region so far have been with Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, with the exception of a trip to Bangladesh by climate czar John Kerry. But South Asia is becoming a major battleground for India-China rivalry, with several small South Asian states—including the Maldives—caught up in the strategic competition. Washington has a strong interest in engaging more with them.

These plans were foreshadowed at the end of the Trump era: One of the administration’s last major policy decisions in Asia was to announce its intention to establish the first U.S. Embassy in the Maldives.

Quote of the Week

Singapore-registered container ship <em>MV X-Press Pearl</em> sinks after burning for almost two weeks, just outside the harbor of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 2.

Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl sinks after burning for almost two weeks just outside the harbor of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 2.ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s very close to a nuclear disaster, what has happened here. This is not a problem just in Sri Lanka. In the coming weeks, this is going to be a regional problem.”

Muditha Katuwawala, a coordinator with a volunteer group that protects marine life, assessing the damage caused by the sinking of a container ship full of toxic materials off the Sri Lankan coast earlier this month

Regional Voices

In a Dawn op-ed, Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and United Nations, wrote Islamabad’s decision to shift the focus of its foreign policy from geopolitics to geoeconomics lacks the clarity to be effective. “As these official statements have yet to be elaborated or specify the means by which the policy is to be pursued, the ‘shift’ is, for now, a desire not a strategy,” she wrote.

Former Pakistani Sen. Afrasiab Khattak wrote for Afghanistan’s Tolo News about how the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could change and destabilize Central Asia politics. He argued “Turkish nationalism combined with Islamic fervor can be a lethal political tool in Central Asia,” saying militant groups could benefit.

An editorial in Bangladesh’s Daily Star laments how the government has not allocated enough pandemic assistance for impoverished border areas, where COVID-19 test positivity rates are around 30 percent. It noted regional health care infrastructure is under a major strain. “Unless immediate measures are taken to increase the number of healthcare workers in these hospitals, things might soon run out of control,” it warned.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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