The Afghan Crisis: The Shimmering Facades of Turkey’s Foreign Policy and A New Role for Europe

Desiree di Marco
Research Fellow at CESRAN International


The crisis in Afghanistan allowed Turkey to put into practice some focal points of its foreign policy. This paper aims to clarify Turkish foreign policy in the light of the Afghan crisis and analyse its role and actions in the regional context politically and diplomatically, also considering its relations with the European Union.

The geographical limitation of Turkey, which excludes Afghan refugees from protection as they do not come from Europe and do not fall within the Geneva Convention definition of refugee, makes it difficult for Afghans to leave the country for Europe. So many Afghans have been stuck in Turkey for years, awaiting the release of bureaucratic procedures.

The Fall of Kabul

On August 15, the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, fell to the Taliban. The reasons are many, but certainly, a key argument is the deterioration of the Afghan state. For years Afghanistan has suffered from violence, corruption, economic breakdowns, poor infrastructure management, the health sector and education, especially for women.

The Doha agreement promoted by the USA and signed in February 2021 with the Taliban aimed to relieve the country from violence and poverty and lead it towards a peace process. However, sitting at that table was useless. It was only the Taliban who won back. The Doha Agreements resulted in the takeover by the Taliban, first of the villages, then of the provinces and finally of the capital.

The Spread of Global Jihadism: The Asymmetric Threat to the International Community

The problem is not so much that Afghanistan will become the new military base of these armed groups but that the strength of these armed groups lies in weak countries and weak counties is a threat to the international community. The majoritarian presence of jihadists in Yemen, Somalia, Mozambique and Syria suggests that Afghanistan will be the next. If a pocket of cooperative armed groups is installed, Afghanistan will become poorer and corrupted.Today, Afghanistan is no longer a state but a territory commanded by an armed group desperately seeking international recognition despite the horrors committed in the past. This recognition, however, would also mean the success of the global jihadist movement, which would exploit the victory of the Taliban to legitimize and spread its propaganda. The spiral of violence in the country would then be endless, not only because the Taliban themselves would exercise it, but because the country’s colossal galaxy of armed groups could re-emerge, such as ETIM (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement), Terik-e Taleban Pakistan (which will continue to use Afghan soil to attack Pakistan) al-Qaeda, a history of the Taliban, and the Khorasan group, a branch of Daesh that would significantly contribute to worsening the scenario.

The US withdrawal and the refugee crisis

The critical situation in the country is the direct result of the rapid US withdrawal, which had left Afghans amid an economic, political, and social crisis alone in the hands of the Taliban. Moreover, the population now faces a highly repressive regime. Consequently, people are trying to flee the country, but not all possess the means to reach Europe. For this reason, not Europe but neighbouring countries like Iran, Pakistan and Turkey will face a massive surge of Afghan refugees. Indeed, Europe will also be called to its responsibilities. Still, the European alarmism on the mass of refugees arriving on the continent is more the result of a political strategy than of a real alert.

Turkey’s Assertive Foreign and Security Policy

After the end of the Cold War, a new concept of Turkey emerged as a bridge country. Turkey’s primary objective became the protection and preservation of its stability. Today, in the modern era marked by 9/11, Turkey’s new position has become twofold, characterized by a conceptual and a geographical dimension both exploited by the country for its political interests.

In terms of geography, Turkey occupies a unique space. In the midst of Afro-Eurasia’s landmass, with its cultural capital Istanbul as a span between the East and the West, the country has developed a strong Turkic identity, a strategic element that the Turkish state has always been able to exploit in order to make the most of its geography.

Being a Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea country, Turkey’s unique geographical dimension has always fuelled ambitious and idealized goals.

Today the consolidation of a Turkic identity spread beyond its national borders lays at the foundation of the Turkish foreign and security policy. The Turkish state sees itself as an umbrella under which diverse and multiple ethnic groups are labelled as Turkic. In political terms, this facilitates Turkey’s actions in remote areas, like Afghanistan, where groups like the Qizilbash, the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz and the Turkmens are considered well-defined targets.

Today, Turkey’s main goal is to consistently intervene in global issues using international platforms and more active diplomacy to transform herself from a central country to global power.

Principles of Turkey’s new foreign policy

Since 2002 Turkey has begun to restructure its policies taking advantage of its geographical and historical assets. In sum, one can group Turkey’s foreign policy into five principles. First, the balance between security and democracy, conditio sine qua non for establishing an area of influence in its environment. Second, a “zero problem policy towards its neighbours” where Turkey, offering herself as a successful example in the eyes of the international community, can cooperate with her neighbours against common threats. Third, the development of good relations with neighbouring regions and beyond, like Afghanistan. Fourth, the compliance with a multi-dimensional foreign policy established in 2003-2004.

According to this perspective, Turkey’s relations with other global actors need to be complementary and not competitive, such as the relations with the EU. Despite the fact that the bilateral relations did not progress to the extent that we would like to see and the several stops and go, they have continued today.

Fifth, the pursuit of rhythmic diplomacy explains Turkey’s increasing influence in international organizations and the number of international meetings it has hosted since 2003. This reflects the change in Turkey’s strategy: the country needs international community recognition of a responsible state providing order and security to the entire region.

Principles of Turkey’s new security priorities

As a NATO member state situated in geography that poses multiple threats to its security and even existence, Turkey seeks to maintain its own domestic and regional security while contributing to a global environment of peace and order. The country’s foreign and security policies are interrelated and are also inseparable from her economy.

Despite the interventionist role of the military in Turkey’s political affairs, today’s threats fuel the idea of security as a concept connected with the survival of its population, the protection of territorial integrity and the preservation of the identity of the nation. Above all, after the Cold War, Turkey’s security concerns turned into internal threats rather than external ones. For example, the rising number of asylum seekers in the country is a fundamental element of Turkish security and defence policy.

Turkey’s main security concerns are the armed conflict with the PKK perceived as an internal security issue, the disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea and the IS’s terrorism campaign.

Turkey’s migration policy

While Turkey provides shelter to millions of refugees, it retains a geographical limitation to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees’ ratification, which means that Turkey applies the Convention only to refugees originating from European countries. The reason behind Turkey’s partial ratification of the Convention was the fear of mass influxes of people from neighbouring countries to the East and southwest of the country coming from Asia and the Middle East.

Despite the fear and the actions consequently taken, Turkey, for its geographical position, has continuously experienced huge migratory waves, like the 2011 Syrian crisis that saw millions of refugees reaching the country. Today the current Afghan crisis caused by the Taliban’s takeover is perceived as the same threat.

The country’s asylum system excludes Afghan refugees from its protection as they do not come from Europe and do not fall within the Geneva Convention definition of a refugee.

Moreover, in Turkey, the entire asylum-seeking system is critically slow because it is UNCHR alone that is in charge of registering, determining and resettling refugees.

As a result, a new category of a refugee is emerging in Turkey: the stuck refugee, that is to say, someone who arrives in Turkey and, after several months, sees himself stuck in the country due to the inability to obtain the necessary documents to leave and to continue the journey through Europe. Generally, Afghan refugees arriving in Turkey consider Turkey the last country of arrival before reaching Europe, so they usually don’t intend to remain there. But considering that they encounter long and complex bureaucratic processes, they often remain stuck there.

Today Turkey is also refusing another migration surge, and officials said that the country would not act as the EU’s “warehouse” for Afghan refugees. Even if the EU agreed to send 3billions to Turkey as part of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on migration in June, today, Turkey’s conditions have changed. The country saw a growing anti-migrant backlash, which eventually resulted in the erection of a three-meter high wall bordering Iran to stop refugees fleeing the Taliban.

The Upsurge in Refugee Crisis and A New Role For EU

A few weeks ago, European Commission President Ursula von del Leyen pledged more humanitarian aid for Afghanistan while calling on the international community to help resettle refugees. The fall of Kabul has inevitably reopened divisions over immigration in European countries — the Achille heel of Europe — and a week after Taliban militants captured the country, the EU realized that a new humanitarian crisis could break out.

But in reality, how many Afghans will have the economic chance to reach Europe?

Where do Afghan refugees go?

On average, refugees travel through six to eleven countries before reaching Europe. Often using multiple forms of transportation, including car, boat, plane and bus, the majority of Afghans do not have the economic capacity to face such a long journey that could last up to 3 months. For this reason, the United Nations urged, firstly, neighbouring countries to keep their borders open. Up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year. The vast majority of them, being poor, illiterate, without money or permits of any kind, will pour out into neighbouring countries like Iran or Pakistan. The problem for Afghans is that today the Taliban control all the mainland crossing points with Afghanistan’s neighbours, and reports suggest they are only allowing traders or those with valid travel documents to leave the country[1].

Moreover, neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan, which borders the north of Afghanistan, have said its main crossing point is closed to ensure security; Tajikistan said that they would accept only 100,000 refugees; Turkmenistan affirmed that despite offering its airspace for evacuation flights, they did not make any commitment to take refugees. Pakistan, which has the longest border with Afghanistan, has declared that it will not accept refugees because refugees are already overburdened. Countries like Pakistan and Iran have seen the highest numbers of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in recent years.

Today the US-led operations to evacuate people registered more than 123,000 civilians who left the country. Among them, 80,000 civilians were flown out of Kabul. Of those, 5,500 were Americans, and more than 73,500 were Afghans.

A new role for Europe

Of course, a flux of Afghan refugees will also arrive in Europe through Turkey or Greece, but numbers will not be so high as the EU government is alarming. The Afghan population in the EU remains small and unevenly distributed. According to the last report by the EU, around 7,000 Afghans were granted permanent or temporary legal status in the EU. At least 2,200 Afghans were located in Greece, 1,800 in France, 1,000 in Germany and 700 in Italy. The vast majority of Afghans do not settle in the West. Still, the adoption of hard-line policies and anti-refugee sentiments across Europe (in Poland and Hungary) means that very few Afghans will find a safe place on the continent. Austria and Switzerland have already refused to take in refugees.

The geographical limitation of Turkey, the unwillingness of neighbouring countries to accept Afghan refugees, the Taliban’s control of the borders, and Afghans’ economic conditions are all factors that force the poor people, the majority of Afghans, to remain stuck in the country. This leaves an enormous number of Afghans who are internally displaced.

The economic, political, security and social resistance to the Taliban will shape the next episode of Afghanistan, Turkey, and Europe’s history. It will be precisely in the future history of Afghanistan that Europe will shape its foreign policy, particularly upon the threat posed by the increasing power of armed groups. Moreover, Afghanistan could soon fall prey to China, nullifying any military and political influence of Europe over the area. This means that the recent events that happened in Afghanistan are only the starting point of a new role for Europe in the world.


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One thought on “The Afghan Crisis: The Shimmering Facades of Turkey’s Foreign Policy and A New Role for Europe

  1. The paper is based on the colonial policy of Europe. I wish people have started to work on real peace that is good for all, and not for the white race only.
    The author suffers from too much reliance on poor knowledge of Afghanistan and her people. So far the Western predictions and/or plans failed to be true. We hope the new plans of chaos led by Americans and Europeans that promote terrorism will also fail in Afghanistan.
    Today a new chapter of American terrorism has begun. The American viceroy to Afghanistan, Amiri, declared chaos in Afghanistan yesterday and today her forces attack the boys’ school. This time perhaps more feminist war and less American interest war.

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