The burgeoning Turkey - Pakistan relationship poses multiple serious threats to the international order
Turkey and Pakistan, two countries that have been displaying a marked tendency towards religious radicalization and disregarding democratic values, have in recent years shown a keen desire to forge close bilateral ties, each for its own reasons. Under Turkey’s lead, the two countries have also made efforts to form an alternative grouping to the Saudi Arabia-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to represent the interests of Muslims worldwide. The destabilizing impact that Turkey, under its increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has had on the global order through its actions in Syria, Libya and the Mediterranean, to name only a few, has been well documented. Likewise, it is also well established that Pakistan’s promotion of terrorism in its neighbourhood and beyond and its illegal proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have inter alia contributed to the international community’s reluctance to view it as a responsible State. The lurking danger that the coming together of two such countries could potentially pose to the international order has, however, not yet begun receiving the interest that it rightfully deserves.
Erdogan, after 18 long years as Turkey’s leader, sees himself as the founder of a second republic, one that is divested of its secularism and democratic niceties and is more akin to an Islamic Caliphate. He visualizes himself taking Turkey back to its glory days of the Ottoman Empire, and harbours a desire to project Turkey as the ideological and cultural leader of the Muslim world and the lone voice of all Muslims. In pursuit of these aims, Erdogan has succeeded in engineering a complete and fundamental change in Turkish politics, and has turned the State from a firmly secular one up to 2007 into a notably different system today. This is especially true of the period following the failed 2016 coup, when the military has been effectively marginalized and President Erdogan’s brand of ‘Moderate Islamism’ has become dominant. Religion-motivated historical icons are glorified, while secular figures are suppressed. Popular media has been weaponized and converted into a sinister, passive but effective propaganda tool. Religious conservatism is rising and progressive reforms are slowly being rolled back. Democracy, meanwhile, is being nibbled at with arbitrary restrictions on exercise of freedoms by women, the press, and free thinkers. Erdogan’s Turkey has come under repeated criticism for its political decisions – over violations of human rights, the extension of the state of emergency, and the treatment of Kurds, among others. The European Union (EU) assessed in 2019 that in various fields such as the judicial system, corruption, human rights and the economy, Turkey was “seriously backsliding”. Things have reached such a pass that French President Emmanuel Macron last year termed Turkey, an aspirant for EU membership, as “anti-European”.
This inclination toward Islamism and regression is one of the threads that in recent years has united Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia and encouraged the three countries to take baby steps towards setting up an alternative organization representing Islamic countries. Iran and Qatar were also roped in. For Pakistan specifically, its flagging ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), its erstwhile patrons in the Middle East, coincided with its arch rival India deepening its ties with the two OIC powerhouses. Alarmed at the prospect of being left rudderless in the Muslim world and voiceless in the OIC, Pakistan quickly identified Turkey as the potential new benefactor in the Islamic world. Then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was the first foreign leader to contact Erdogan in the wake of the failed coup in 2016 and pledge assistance. Erdogan has shown his gratitude by intensifying the bilateral relationship.
Pakistani political and military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa in an article titled ‘Erdogan’s Turkey is on Pakistan-Indonesia track. Mixing military greed and radical Islam’ has brought out some of the other aspects that have drawn Turkey and Pakistan together. She opined that “The three Muslim countries with rampant military authoritarianism - Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia - were also nations where religious zealotry had gradually increased. The three militaries had built big financial empires, which was not about the armed forces making profit but about gaining autonomy that encouraged greater authoritarianism and led to strange reactions from the society. Religious radicalism was certainly one of the visible impacts”. She also observed that “While Pakistan military’s goal was never to protect secularism or Islamism, it had a major role in creating and then protecting religious nationalism, which I call Pak-Islamism. Similarly, the Turkish military, during the 1980s, was no longer the guardian of secularism but its own power. Furthermore, the partnership with the US to fight the Communist Soviet Union made it more important to encourage religious politics in both countries. The 1980s is a critical decade in pushing religious radicalism at a faster pace in both Pakistan and Turkey, driven by their militaries’ ambitions rather than society’s instincts. The intertwining of religious radicalism with the military’s greed for power made religion the natural space for political dialogue… In Pakistan, where the military is both the beneficiary and producer of a different historical experience, it’s an overall radicalism that grew instead of one particular religious party getting strengthened”.
For Turkey, its declining relations with Saudi Arabia predate the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, as well as differences over the approach to Libya and Qatar, had already contributed to their deterioration. Pakistan’s overtures were, therefore, timely and opportune, and were welcomed by it. Turkey believes that extending strategic and military ties with Pakistan has helped to increase its influence in Asia and provided new options for its foreign-policy ambitions. Pakistan could also help Turkey to maintain a balance between the East and West.
Turkey’s increasingly aggressive posture in its neighbourhood and its partnership with Russia had also led to serious strains in its relationship with the EU and the United States (US). The Cyprus-based Jonathan Gorvett, a specialist on European and Middle Eastern affairs, wrote in an article titled ‘Twin sanction threat puts the squeeze on Erdogan’ on 12 December that “Battling the European Union (EU) over Eastern Mediterranean maritime disputes while angering the US over a recent Russian missile deal, Turkey now faces the threat of sanctions from two power blocks which combined represent over a third of the global economy. In the longer term, though, the threat of a harsher response remains, with both Europe and the US increasingly concerned over Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy course, including ‘Neo-Ottoman’ foreign adventures that at least in part seek to restore the country’s Ottoman Empire glory”. Gorvett underlined that if imposed, the punitive measures “would send Turkey’s collapsing economy into free fall”.
Erdogan’s close and personal relationship with outgoing US President Donald Trump owing to the latter’s personal financial interests and his apparent affection for autocrats had so far protected him from a Washington establishment, Republican and Democrat alike, which has been increasingly critical of Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy and intensifying authoritarianism. Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election represents a significant setback for Erdogan. Biden has publicly described Erdogan as an “autocrat”, and said that “Turkey is the real problem”, and that he would tell “Erdogan that he will pay a heavy price”. Biden’s attitude towards Pakistan will also most likely not be very favourable, as had been brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 13-11-2020 titled ‘The possible impact on South Asia of Joe Biden’s victory: China and Afghanistan policies will hold the key’. The uncertainty that threatens to cloud the US relations with both Turkey and Pakistan has had the effect of being an additional incentive for the latter two countries to cozy up further and stick together.
Trump’s lackadaisical approach to Erdogan provided the latter with an opening for an aggressive and revisionist set of policies that pushed the boundaries of Turkey’s relations not only with the US, but also with Europe. Erdogan has been intent on extending Turkish influence throughout the Mediterranean. In Libya, he intervened decisively on behalf of the Tripoli government by deploying his country’s highly effective drones, along with advisers and thousands of Syrian jihadists, turning the tide against the insurgent Khalifa Haftar. Turkey has also challenged the Greek and Cypriot exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. This development has not only shaken the EU, but also demonstrated Ankara’s all-or-nothing approach that risks instigating a serious conflict with military ramifications. It prompted Manfred Weber, a Member of the European Parliament, to say on 2 July this year that “Turkey is unilaterally escalating conflicts with Europe and the situation is getting worse. Turkish security forces attack the Greek border on a regular basis and the drilling attempts in the waters of Cyprus are intensifying continuously. The EU cannot leave these aggressions unanswered”.
For the EU, the growing bond between Turkey and Pakistan could have serious ramifications, and the worries for it include the export of radical ideas and terrorists to a Europe that is already struggling to contain extremist thoughts and terrorist elements on its soil. A recent example of the Turkey - Pakistan interplay at work was following the recent terrorist attacks in France. President Macron’s criticism of the needless killings and his support for freedom of expression were met with a very personal attack by Erdogan. Decrying what he termed as “rising Islamophobia” under Macron's watch, Erdogan added, “What problem does this person called Macron have with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level”. Under pressure to stand by his new benefactor, Imran Khan tweeted, “This is a time when President Macron could have put a healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarization and marginalization that inevitably leads to radicalization”.
Aya Burweila, Director of ‘Code on the Road’, a non-profit organization that aims at building resilience to extremism through researching protective factors, in an article titled ‘Turkey’s Challenges to International Security’ underscored that “While the old rogues, like Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollahs of Iran, remained firmly outside the pale of global security alliances, new rogues such as Turkey and Qatar are deeply embedded within the political, military, and financial systems of their target states and communities, allowing them to effectively pursue their policies from within. Eighteen years since the victory of the Islamist AKP party led by Erdogan, the Turkish government has descended into an Islamist authoritarianism and belligerence towards NATO allies and other sovereign states… Turkey’s use of political proxies extends to Europe, where, according to Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, Turkey is the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading backer. According to a Swedish case study by Magnus Norell, adjunct scholar of The Washington Institute, ‘Erdogan’s government has been very assertive in building economic, social, and religious bridges to European parties it views as politically in alignment with its own interests’ and has ‘been very assertive in building bridges through various NGOs, religious movements, and social clubs’. The AKP’s contributions to radicalism are sometimes more indirect. For instance, the casting of refugees in October 2019 as weapons used for regional blackmail and not as suffering human beings escaping the horrors of war, and the more recent conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, are likely to further empower the polarising phenomena of reciprocal radicalization between the far-Right and Islamist extremists. Across on the North African front, Turkey’s actions risk creating a new hub for jihadists, and it is thwarting the chances for peace and democracy in the country”.
Such has been the nature of Erdogan’s reign that a group of policy academics under the banner of The Project on Middle East Political Science published a collection of essays that broadly concluded that Turkey could no longer be regarded as a proper democracy. Simon Tisdall of The Guardian newspaper observed that “Worried politicians in Paris, Berlin, London and Washington no longer see a reliable friend and ally in Ankara. They see an autocratic figure exploiting nationalist and neo-Islamist sentiment, xenophobia and Europhobia, and feelings of public insecurity brought on by next door’s Syrian crisis, to justify egregious human rights abuses, institutional vandalism and anti-EU, anti-western policies”.
In an article in the European Eye on Radicalization titled ‘Turkey and Terrorism’, Angus Taverner had argued as early as in 2018 that Turkey had turned into “a pro-Islamist state that has become more tolerant and even supportive of Islamist extremism, some would suggest even terrorism, all in pursuit of neo-Ottoman ambitions, above all in the Arab World”. This may be part of the explanation to why a country like Turkey would prioritize relations with Pakistan, a State that is openly known to create, harbour and sponsor terrorists. Interestingly, in 2017 Michael Rubin, a former senior figure at the US Pentagon, had gone so far as to argue that Turkey and Pakistan should be added to the list of countries the US condemns as State sponsors of terrorism.
On 4 September 2019, Erdogan suggested it was Turkey’s right to acquire nuclear weapons. He told his party members that “some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But they tell us we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept”. This one single statement of Erdogan should suffice to convey what eventually is at stake in the blossoming Turkey - Pakistan relationship. While the implications are gravest for the EU, they apply equally to the US and the rest of the world. The West has for far too long adopted a policy of appeasement of both Turkey and Pakistan, each for its own specific reasons. It has also been guilty of erroneously interpreting Erdogan’s threats as hyperbole. The West thought Erdogan was bluffing about carrying out operations in Syria, but Turkey eventually launched several of them. Similarly, it did not believe Turkey’s intention to undertake a long-range intervention in Libya, but the intervention did happen. Hence, if Erdogan is saying that he will not abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) and that Turkey intends to acquire nuclear weapons, it may be in everyone’s best interests that his assertion is taken seriously.
At the end of the day, it must not be lost sight of that the most valuable thing Erdogan could possibly want from Pakistan, especially given his stated intention to build nuclear weapons, is nuclear technology.