In this photograph taken on December 23, 2017, Afghan school children play at an open-air school at the Gambiri Refugee Camp in Laghman province
Closing down of the so-called Afghan Turk schools in various cities of Afghanistan by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) over past months has turned into a hot topic in political and diplomatic circles and also among experts. At the present time, this issue has become more complicated after four teachers of one of these schools were nabbed by Afghan security forces, which led to debates about future outlook of Turkey’s presence in the country as the owner of these so-called private schools. These four teachers, who taught at an Afghan Turk school for girls in Kabul, were accused of cooperation with the Islamist movement led by the US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Based on reports, three of them were released on bail on December 17 and the case was sent to Afghanistan’s prosecutor general while the fourth teacher is still being held in custody.
Following Turkey’s botched coup in July 2016, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Gulen – who is known as the spiritual leader of Turkey’s secular Islamists, including the ruling Justice and Development Party – of being behind the coup attempt. So far, tens of thousands of civil servants, military personnel, journalists and other people have been fired from their jobs, arrested and put to trial both inside and outside Turkey on charges of cooperation with the Gulen movement and coup plotters.
Quality and importance of Afghan Turk schools
Afghan Turk schools were first inaugurated in Afghan city of Sheberghan, north of capital Kabul, in 1995. At that time, conflicts between government of then Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and the Taliban were at their height. These schools, which are nongovernmental organizations on the surface and have been working through financial support and indirect supervision of Ankara after the Justice and Development Party’s government was elected in 2002, grew remarkably under the Taliban regime. At the present time, there are sixteen such schools for boys and girls across Afghanistan, especially in such big cities as Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Sheberghan. This shows that various Turkish governments, regardless of their party or political affiliations (secular or Islamist) have been bent on keeping up this project in line with their country’s national interests and large-scale political and cultural goals even if they did not recognize the Taliban regime.
The structure of Afghan Turk schools is such that when Afghan students are admitted, they are introduced to the concept of class divide between the rich and the poor as a result of their high tuition fees. Out of 150 students that are finally chosen out of 3,000 original applicants, 90 students should pay 3,000 dollars (about 180,000 Afghani) per annum. The rate increases by 2,750 dollars (about 165,000 Afghani) for those students who fail certain classes. These figures are very high for a country where per capita income of most people is two dollars per day. Therefore, only children of government officials and major businesspeople can study at these schools. The other 50 students must pay 750 dollars (45,000 Afghani) per year and only 10 students, who are totally successful in the admission exams, can study cost-free at Afghan Turk schools. The admission exam is held in Turkish and English and, in addition, applicants must answer questions on Islamic studies and humanities, which seem natural for schools that are run by an Islamist current.
It seems that launching Afghan Turk schools in the past two decades and the effort made during the past year by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to take full control of these schools through pressure on Afghanistan’s national unity government are all part of a long-term political and cultural project to infiltrate into Afghanistan’s education system in order to raise a new generation of Afghan officials in line with Turkey’s policies. This project has at least two goals as follows:
1. Promoting Pan-Turkism
During the 20th century, various governments in Turkey have always looked upon the idea of “Pan-Turkism” or extreme Turkish nationalism as an effective tool, which has enough potential to pave the way of Ankara’s infiltration into Afghanistan. At the same time, following the implosion of the former Soviet Union, proponents of this theory in Turkey have been trying to bank on the common racial and linguistic features with Turkish minorities in Afghanistan and Central Asia to create some sort of political unity between the two sides of Amu Darya River. In doing so, they intended to secure a strong foothold for their country in Afghanistan and boost Turkey’s popularity among various social classes in that country. At the present time, the Islamist government in Turkey is trying to use this leverage in a lasting manner to deepen its influence on Afghanistan’s policy and culture and has, therefore, put a special focus on Uzbek, Hazara, Qizilbash and Turkmen ethnic groups, which are of a Turkish background.
Since the Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan in 2001, Turkish officials have regularly, and of course indirectly, supported activities of the Afghan Youth Movement. The movement includes a large group of Uzbek and Turkmen youths in Afghanistan and was established many years ago by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first vice president of Afghanistan, who is of Uzbek stock and has had very close relations with Ankara during the past two decades. Therefore, the Afghan Youth Movement has close ties and cooperates with the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, which is led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum. In fact, it considers itself as a cultural and social movement affiliated to this powerful Uzbek party, which is also supported by Turkey in Afghanistan. Among measures taken by the Afghan Youth Movement is publication of a periodical in Kabul titled “The Youth,” whose goal is to bolster the Uzbek culture, hold educational courses for Uzbek youths by attracting them from across Afghanistan, and give priority to issues related to Uzbeks’ rights and culture while promoting Uzbek nationalism. In addition, with regard to economic and financial activities, this organization provides its needy members with food packages. It also runs five guesthouses in various Afghan cities, including two guesthouses in Kabul, which mostly admit ethnic groups of Turkish origin. It also pays a monthly handout of about 3,500 Afghani (about 60 dollars) to financially protect those members who live on a moderate budget. More interestingly, it grants about 100 scholarships to members of the Afghan Youth Movement, and the scholarships are largely funded by Turkey.
Extensive interactions between the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan and the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, led by Karim Khalili, who was former president Hamid Karzai’s second vice president during Karzai’s second term in office (2009-2014), are also noteworthy within framework of efforts made to promote Pan-Turkism in Afghanistan. Abdul Ali Mazari, the late leader of this Shia political party of Afghanistan, who was executed by the Taliban in the middle of the 1990s, had once said that “Dostum is our representative and we represent Dostum.” Dostum, for his part, has said, “We have tested the allegation that Turks have no friends but Turks and have proven that this is correct.” It seems that some sort of semi-overt alliance has taken place between the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan and the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan through unofficial support of Turkey in the face of a coalition between the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, led by Mohammad Mohaqiq, and the Tajik Jamayat-e-Islami (Islamic Society) of Afghanistan, which is led by Salahuddin Rabbani. This proxy faceoff is, in fact, a confrontation between Turkish secular nationalistic ideas and the political-Jihadist Islam in Afghanistan.
2. Bolstering fundaments of Islamic secularism
Afghan society is a basically religious society and efforts made by secular elements in this country for about a century have proven that secularism does not have a deep root in the thought of Afghanistan’s people and ethnic groups. However, most Afghans are optimistic toward Turkey’s intentions. Therefore, although they show conservative and sometimes sharp reactions to cultural and political activities of Pakistan, Iran and the West, there is no serious opposition and resistance, even among the Afghan elites, to Ankara’s effort to implement its creeping cultural and political plans.
Therefore, Turkey is taking various measures under the outward cover of promoting cultural relations between the two countries to consolidate its presence and influence in Afghanistan. Examples of Turkey’s measures include supporting Western-minded cultural, artistic, educational and social nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan under the guise of fighting against religious extremism and violence; providing direct and indirect support for two radio and two television stations in Kabul; airing Turkish series on mostly secular television channels in Afghanistan; and increasing the activities of Turkish Cultural Foundation. In the long run, these measures will make the secular minority and even some Islamist currents in Afghanistan adopt the model of Turkey’s political system. In parallel, Afghan politicians and statesmen will be willing to use Turkey as a balancing weight in the face of Iran and Pakistan, which in turn, will further increase Turkey’s political and security influence in Afghanistan.
© Abrar Moaser Tehran
Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh, a researcher on South Asia affairs, is the resident fellow at Abrar Moaser Tehran Institute
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