With ‘Friends’ Like These ...

Turkey, Pakistan, and Qatar are working to reshape the entire Middle East.

As critics warned, America’s premature and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a power vacuum that has allowed malign actors to step in and gain greater influence. Much of the speculation has centered around Russia and China, but other countries are trying to leverage their Islamist ideology as a conduit to the Taliban. Turkish regime critic Asli Aydıntaşbaş recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his increasingly close allies, Qatar and Pakistan, are seeking to be “Taliban-whisperers.” 

She makes an astute and important observation. But there is a larger truth: These “leading patrons of political Islam,” as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies describes them, are reshaping the wider politics of the region, for the worse. 

The embrace of the Taliban is just part of a larger problem, but it is illuminating. Last summer, as the Taliban was beginning to take control of Afghanistan, Erdoğan pushed to be allowed a hand in running Kabul Airport, a move supported by Pakistan and Qatar. Erdoğan claimed that ''The Taliban should be able to conduct talks with Turkey much easier because Turkey does not have any conflicting issues with their (the Taliban's) beliefs." These talks continued, and Turkey is pressing the international community for further engagement with the Taliban.

It is shocking that the head of a NATO member state would give this sort of diplomatic support to an illegitimate theocracy like the Taliban. More surprising is that he would then try to package this support as a gift to the U.S., as Turkish propaganda continually tries to do. But unfortunately, the U.S. may let Erdoğan get away with it.

The problem is that too many U.S. policymakers have not caught on to how Turkey has changed. As Middle East Institute scholars Marwa Maziad and Lt. Col. Jacob Sotiriadis explained:

Saudi Arabia, which had fostered its own visions of hegemonic pan-Islamism, has recently opted to stop exporting its Wahabbi version of Islam. Turkey, by contrast, has gradually assumed this pan-Islamist role over the past 17 years of Erdoğan’s tenure, but in a markedly more aggressive and reckless manner.

They also observe that Turkey’s behavior is “essentially drawing new fault lines across the region—pitting statist, secular, republican governance models against the culturally-expansionist, militant, and pan-Islamist alternative in Turkey.”

But too many continue to view Turkey primarily through the lens of the Cold War, focusing on  its hosting of Incirlik Air Base, an important hub for American military power, as it has for 70 years. But Turkey is no longer the secular republic formed by Kemal Atatürk. Turkey has alienated many traditional allies, particularly ones that, for various reasons, lean toward the West. 

For example: Since the fall of Egypt’s Mohammad Morsi, Turkey has hosted an estimated 20,000 former Muslim Brotherhood members, a habit Saudi Arabia has kicked. Turkish school curricula “once a model of secularism,” according to Dr. James Dorsey of the National University of Singapore, are now the focal point of “supremacist and intolerant curricula in the Muslim world,” much like Saudi textbooks used to be. And, of course, while Saudi Arabia has recently stopped the massive funds aimed at exporting Wahabbist radicalism, Turkey has massively increased its export of Turkish-flavored radical Islam.

Pakistan is the original “Taliban whisperer” going back to the 1990’s. It is now widely accepted that Pakistan was functionally opposing America in Afghanistan and bears significant responsibility for the Taliban’s reemergence. “Pakistan bet on the Taliban for so long on the assumption that the Americans would leave someday,” said former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani. The historic relationship between Islamist groups, such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistani military is complicated, but it is clear that Islamist ideas hold significant sway in the Pakistani government. Under Prime Minister Imran Khan, who himself is close to both Islamist groups and the military, Pakistan has moved decisively in an Islamist direction. In fact, Pakistan recently sent an overt terror supporter to be Ambassador to the US.

Turkey and Pakistan have a reasonably good relationship historically, but the close personal relationship between Erdoğan and Khan is new and largely born out of their shared Islamist ambitions. The recent examples of close ties between the countries are too numerous to list, but for a sampling: Pakistan and Turkey recently signed a declaration pledging to mutually take sides in their most heated territorial disputes. Khan’s wife, Bushra Bibi, specifically said her husband and Erdoğan were the only great leaders in the world. One of Turkey’s biggest state-run propaganda outfits not only runs virtually non-stop coverage of Kashmir, taking a Pakistani point of view, but employs the son of a Kashmiri jihadist. Erdoğan has twice raised the issue of Kashmir to the U.N. General Assembly. Pakistan now spends more on weapons from Turkey than it does from the U.S., and it is Turkey’s third-largest arms trading partner.

But like Turkey, Pakistan has a historic relationship with the U.S. defense establishment as an artifact of the Cold War, and to a lesser degree, the aftermath of 9/11. But Pakistan has long used this relationship to deflect criticism that comes when its radical coddling and terror financing tendencies come to light.

Qatar has a very different history than Pakistan or Turkey, but finds itself having common interests and a similar Islamist ideology now that Turkey and Pakistan have radicalized Islam as a guiding force.

Erdoğan took Qatar’s side early during the 2017 Gulf rift, as other nations suspended ties with Qatar over allegations of support for terrorism. The rift is now officially over despite having never been truly resolved, but it was partly a result of Qatar funding radicals and pushing Islamist propaganda vis-à-vis its expansive Al-Jazeera network, which consistently supports Turkish and Pakistani points of view. Additionally, Qatar’s gulf neighbors were concerned that it was hosting Turkish military bases, which are seen as a threat.

Qatar’s hosting of U.S. and Taliban representatives for the so-called “peace talks” that led to the February 2020 withdrawal agreement (read: capitulation to the Taliban) was not the act of an ally, but an attempt to appear as a friend while helping the Taliban. It’s a game Qatar has been playing with numerous terrorist groups for years. Now Qatar is concerned not that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, but by the public relations fallout of being seen as embracing it too quickly. The Qataris’ insistence that America asked them to host the Taliban may in fact be true, but it obscures the reason: Qatar has openly been the headquarters of all kinds of international terrorists and a major funder of radicals and terrorists all across the world.

But much like Turkey and Pakistan, due to cooperation in the first Gulf War, Qatar has hosted the Al Udeid Air Force Base since 1991. Thus, too much in the defense establishment, and those in Congress that support it, have been deferential.

The trio’s strategy seems to be working. The Biden administration’s recent statement calling follow-up talks in Qatar with the illegitimate Taliban regime “candid and professional” suggests that the effort to normalize the Taliban and benefit from it are paying dividends. Indeed, Qatar has been named as the U.S. diplomatic proxy for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

However, this strategic success is likely due to the shock of the Taliban’s swift victory, and political exigencies, and it won’t continue without work. Continuing this charade on other issues, such as Pakistan’s designs on Indian-controlled Kashmir, Turkey’s de-facto embrace of Syrian jihadi groups and Hamas, and Qatar’s financial and logistical support for numerous extremists, will require whipsawing American policymakers so they don’t notice what’s happening. All three countries are actively involved in efforts to direct American politics in their direction, such as politicized, foreign funded mosques in the US, shady, foreign government connected political networks, and massive, undisclosed media influence, which will need to grow as time goes on if their efforts are to be successful.

American policymakers need to adjust to the times. No country in the wider Islamic world will turn into a reliable, human rights respecting democracy like Britain, Australia, or Japan anytime soon, but this trio is the most troubling force in the Sunni Islamic world. They are actively undermining America’s interests, working to add to their ranks, and all while insisting they are doing the U.S. a favor.

This is pure gaslighting. And America should not let them get away with it.

Clifford Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.