Last week, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that Turkey is ready “for any cooperation in the fight against terrorism.” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that Islamic State militants pose a greater threat to Turkey and the Muslim world than to the West.
But Turkey’s dilemma is far more grave than its leaders realize. Indeed, Turkey’s current situation resembles the early years of Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban. The Islamic State is recruiting militants in Turkey. And failure to clean its own house now could lead Turkey down the path of “Pakistanization,” whereby a resident jihadist infrastructure causes Sunni extremism to ingrain itself deeply within the fabric of society.
Although Turkey now recognizes the threat — the Turkish government voted to authorize military force in Iraq and Syria on Thursday — it has yet to come to terms with its own responsibility for helping to create it.
Turkey claims that radical groups grew stronger because moderates seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria were not given adequate aid. But that is not the whole picture. As Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., the former American ambassador to Turkey, has pointed out, Ankara supported radical groups, including the Nusra Front. Indeed, during the early days of Syria’s civil war, jihadist groups funneled fighters and resources through Turkey into Syria.
Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian civil war parallels Pakistan’s support of the Taliban to affect the course of the Afghan civil war. But the jihadism abetted by Pakistan did not remain across the Afghan border. Turkey may now be witnessing the beginnings of a similar blowback.
While the magnitude of Turkey’s recent engagement of jihadist proxies isn’t comparable to Pakistan’s long history of jihadist sponsorship, the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s ill-fated relationship with the Sunni extremists of Pakistan’s Deobandi movement is still instructive for Turkey. Pakistan’s Deobandis dedicated themselves to implementing “the system of the Caliphate of the Rightly Guided,” a Sunni sectarian state to serve as a South Asian stepping stone to a worldwide Islamic caliphate.
Pakistan’s experience with blowback began prior to Ms. Bhutto’s tenure, when General Zia ul-Haq’s regime backed mujahedeen militias as proxies to combat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Organized by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate with assistance from the United States and Saudi Arabia, the recruitment networks within Pakistan started a radicalization process among segments of Pakistan’s population. The most susceptible group was the more than three million Afghan refugees. (The I.S.I. in particular backed Hekmatyar Gulbuddin’s Hezb-i-Islami, which was part of a rival to movement to the Deobandis.)
Afghan refugee boys began attending Deobandi madrassas, and small numbers of teachers and students began joining militant groups to fight the Soviets. Upon the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Afghan Communist government, the mujahedeen turned on one another, prolonging Afghanistan’s civil war, and the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
In 1994, Ms. Bhutto began to abet militancy to secure Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan. The Bhutto government facilitated a paramilitary force of thousands of madrassa students to cross the border and take control of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province. With Pakistan’s help, this militia of “Taliban,” literally “students,” conquered large swaths of Afghan territory and declared its commander, Mullah Omar, to be caliph. Like the Taliban before them, the Islamic State has designated its commander, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph and calls the territories under its control a caliphate.
Their militancy soon crossed the border. After the initial stage of mobilizing volunteers and weapons for jihad in Afghanistan, a second phase developed in which Pakistan witnessed a wave of anti-Shiite violence, including bombings of Karachi’s major Shiite mosques by the Taliban’s sister organization in Pakistan, Sipah-e Sahaba.
The Turkish government’s decision to turn a blind eye to Islamic State activity within its borders has similarly led to the extremists’ increasing influence in certain areas of Turkey’s major cities. The recent and unprecedented arson attacks on Shiite mosques in Istanbul may indicate that Turkey is entering this second phase. Turkey is home to only a small Shiite community; but Turkey’s Alevis, a heterodox Muslim sect often regarded as heretical by Sunnis, constitute about 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
A campaign by Sunni extremists against the Alevi community could lead Turkey into a Pakistan-like vortex of sectarian violence and radicalization. The present government’s own politics of polarization, illustrated by Mr. Erdogan’s baiting of the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu due to his Alevi background during Turkey’s recent presidential election campaign, may further inflame sectarian tensions. And Islamic State militants will not hesitate to exploit the Sunni-Alevi fault line in Turkish society.
Pakistan’s final and most dangerous stage of extremism occurred when the flow of militants and resources was reversed. As the Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan, it provided training camps and other logistical support to its allies, making it harder for Pakistan to control militant organizations inside its borders. After 9/11, Gen. Pervez Musharraf attempted to crack down on militants inside Pakistan. His efforts culminated in the 2007 Red Mosque battle in Islamabad and the subsequent coalescing of militants into the movement known as the Pakistani Taliban.
Turkey has not experienced this stage yet. But the Islamic State may find fertile recruiting ground among Turkey’s 1.3 million Syrian refugees. And Turkish citizens may be drawn into the orbit of militancy just as segments of Pakistan’s population have been. If the Islamic State’s Turkish networks remain intact, Turkey runs the risk that homegrown militants will be empowered by the return of fighters from Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq.
Ms. Bhutto’s strategy of employing militant proxies to create a client state in Afghanistan succeeded — but at a high price for Pakistan. That is a warning for Turkey, which must recognize that it cannot shield itself from Sunni militancy while pursuing a Sunni sectarian foreign policy in the Middle East.
Michael M. Tanchum teaches at Tel Aviv University and is a fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.