Turkey's engagement with the Afghan peace process can help Washington and Ankara turn the page on a difficult period and start afresh.

A letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the government of Afghanistan to accelerate peace talks and finalise an agreement through the contribution of not only the US, but also Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and India. 

Secretary Blinken’s call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres focused on finding a just and durable political settlement to the conflict backed by a comprehensive ceasefire.

Instead of identifying and analysing the role of Turkey as merely hosts of the intra-Afghan peace talks, Ankara's potential as a mediator should be recognised too. 

The United States and Turkey have repeatedly feuded on strategic issues since the Obama administration’s second term in office. Most analyses of the parternship has focused on the S400 Russian air defence system, the YPG-PKK relationship and terrorism, FETO, the eastern Mediterranea crisis, Halkbank, and Turkey’s internal political cases, rather than instances of cooperation.

Along with these issues, US Secretary of State Blinken declared, “We will revitalise ties with our allies and partners” through “carrying burdens together.” 

With a long history behind the bilateral relationship that includes membership in NATO, Turkey can now positively contribute to the intra-Afghan peace talks with the potential to revitalise the relationship with the US.

This cooperation can potentially extend with a modest approach to Central Asia, Ukraine, and NATO, as one expert has pointed out. Presidential Spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, also emphasised that Turkey's strategic importance has not diminished, and it is likely that the Biden administration will continue to work closely with Turkey.

Afghanistan and US foreign policy

Global politics has changed irrevocably since the 9/11 attacks. The liberal predictions based on the domination of Western liberal democracy in the post-Cold War era ended; the Bush Doctrine has defined American foreign policy for the last two decades, which the former president summarised in his own speech as, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Afghanistan was at the centre of this policy, which spread across the Middle East, dominated discourse and unleashed decades of violence.

While the aggressive US policy experienced  modicum of revision under the leadership of former President Barack Obama, the attempts at peace and a reduction of violence have failed. 

During his successor Donald Trump's period in office, the US made a few departures from liberal principles especially with regards to internal politics, climate change and US involvement abroad. However, there has been a fair level of continuity in the Trump foreign policy doctrine, following in many of his predecessor's footsteps.

Under the Trump administration, the US played a leading role in starting peace talks; the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, started the first deal between the US and Taliban in February 2020, in Doha, where the Taliban had its delegation present.

After the initial US-Taliban deal, intra-Afghan peace talks continued in September 2020. They, however, moved slowly and were increasingly perceived as unable to deliver on the timeline of peace roadmap. 

In contrast to previously slow progress in this effort, the Biden administration is looking to accelerate the peace process and include other global players to cultivate common ground in a collective effort for peace in Afghanistan.

Why Turkey?

While there are high expectations from the Biden administration, the US president will not be the architect of dramatic changes in foreign policy. Biden can be expected to prioritise domestic policy to supersede Trump’s legacy of populism, racism, internal tensions, and the catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic. 

Remarks by President Biden on America’s place in the world emphasise US leadership against authoritarianism, China’s expansion, and Russia’s disruption of democracy.

Most experts have not expected positive developments in Turkey-US relations because of Biden’s speech on President Erdogan during the election process and the appointment of Turkey critic Brett McGurk to the National Security Council. 

However, President Erdogan has undertaken economic and legal reforms that follow more in the vein of liberal policies compared to the last few years due to a reduction in the threat of PKK and FETO - all ground realities that can improve bilateral relations. 

Moreover, hosting intra-Afghan peace talks in Ankara may lead Washington to reassess the relationship and serve as a reminder of Turkey's significance in global affairs.

Intra-Afghan peace talks face various obstacles before any breakthrough can be reached between the Afghan government and Taliban. There is no clear prospect for the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the group faces the dilemma of reconciling its values between democracy and sharia (Islamic Law).

Within this difficult dynamic, Turkey has attached great importance to the role of mediation, a valuation historically in line with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sectarian issues in Iraq, the Astana process, and comparatively better relations with Western countries and its values as a Muslim country.

When focusing on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Turkey has a historically strong relationship with Pakistan, which can have a positive effect on the peace process. In comparison with Saudi Arabia’s relationship to Salafi extremism and Iran’s involvement with sectarian militancy across the region, Turkey’s role becomes more meaningful. 

It goes without saying that Turkey has had one of the most successful NATO missions in Afghanistan. In recent times Turkey has also expanded its military presence across Somalia, Libya, Qatar, and Azerbaijan. That experience will come in handy when the US withdraws its soldiers, planned for May 1, 2021.

US-Turkey relations have faced several destructive obstacles since Obama's last term. While there are no expectations of a positive step in ties from the Biden administration, Ankara’s hosting of the intra-Afghan peace talks just might prompt a change of heart.

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