There isn’t much that Turkey’s president can do these days to further debase his reputation in the West. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has crushed peaceful protests at home and abroad, closed newspapers, threatened American soldiers, and collectively scapegoated Kurds. But over the weekend, Erdogan managed to go even lower.
At a rally at Kahramanmaras, the Turkish leader brought a trembling 6-year-old girl on stage dressed in military garb and told her she would be honored if she died as a martyr. He sounded like a terrorist. We expect this kind of child abuse from the fanatics in Hamas or Hezbollah. Erdogan though is the leader of an important NATO ally.
Turkey is beginning to resemble Pakistan, a perpetually failing state whose military leadership has tolerated and advanced a vision of political Islam deeply hostile to U.S. and Western interests.
To be sure, Turkey is not quite there yet. There is still a majority of Turks who want to eventually join the European Union. The Turkish economy is stronger than Pakistan’s, and its banks are more trusted. And unlike in Pakistan, the driving force to further Islamize society has come from Erdogan, an elected leader, not the military. Indeed, the Turkish military has (until some of Erdogan’s recent reforms) historically been a force that undermined the elected leadership through coups to preserve the secular tradition of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk.
That said, Erdogan is following the Pakistani model in disturbing ways, according to Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. Haqqani, a former journalist, is in a unique position to evaluate this trend because he wrote the best history of how the Pakistani military embraced Islamic fundamentalism.
In an interview Haqqani said Erdogan’s approach was reminiscent of Pakistan’s military dictator between 1978 and 1988, Zia ul-Haq. Like Zia, Erdogan has instituted legal and societal reforms to further Islamize society. In January, for example, he instituted a new plan to pour government money into Islamic schools.
“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity,” Haqqani said. “Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey.”
The clearest parallel with Pakistan is Turkey’s current approach to the war in Syria. In January, Erdogan launched a new offensive against America’s Kurdish allies in Afrin. Even though the Turks have worked against the regime in Damascus, during the first weeks of that offensive they actually coordinated with their erstwhile adversaries in Syria.
This is a less toxic version of Pakistan’s broader approach to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. There, the Pakistani military and intelligence services have tolerated and at times encouraged a group known as the Haqqani Network (no relation to the ambassador) to become a lifeline for the Afghan Taliban and other terrorists attacking U.S. forces and the elected government in Kabul. At the same time, the Pakistanis have been important allies for the U.S. dating back to the Islamic insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and more recently against elements of al Qaeda since 2001. Of course when the U.S. finally tracked down Osama bin Laden, it found him living in the same town as Pakistan’s prestigious military academy, Abbottabad.
Again, Turkey has not yet sunk to this level. But it’s heading down this path. In the first years of the Syrian civil war after 2011, Turkey’s border with that country was a sieve for new Islamic State recruits joining the short-lived caliphate in Raqqa. To this day, Turkey remains a friendly outpost for Hamas, the terror group that has run Gaza since 2007.
As a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, told me this week: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues on the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”
This is the deep challenge today for Washington. So far however the U.S. government has not shown Ankara the tough love necessary to stop Turkey’s slide. The latest high-level visit for example, from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month, sought to paper over Turkey’s campaign in Afrin and Erdogan’s recent threat to deliver an “Ottoman slap” to the U.S.
This kind of short-term thinking is understandable, but it doesn’t address the slow-motion disaster happening now in Turkey. Here it’s important, at the very least, to draw some boundaries for Erdogan and convey that he cannot maintain the current relationship with the U.S. if he crosses them. A good starting point would be to demand Erdogan stop threatening U.S. soldiers.
In the meantime, it’s telling that Turkey and Pakistan are getting closer. Last week at a meeting of the Financial Action Task Force, the international body to counter money laundering, it was Turkey that helped counter a U.S. move to place Pakistani banks on a watch list for financing terrorism. Given the direction Turkey is heading, it looks like they are hoping Pakistan may one day return the favor.