Will Turkey take over security at Afghanistan’s main airport?

Turkey and US negotiating on whether Turkish troops will stay in Kabul to guard the international airport – a move the Taliban has opposed.

Travellers exit the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul [File: S Sabawoon/EPA-EFE]

Istanbul, Turkey – As American military and intelligence officers quietly slip out of Afghanistan, the security environment in the country has increasingly become more fragile, including for the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that serves as a gateway to the world.

Following the first bilateral talks with US President Joe Biden during a NATO leaders’ summit in early June, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Turkish troops could continue to stay at Kabul airport to guard it and assist NATO’s withdrawal.

That may happen on the condition that Turkey, a NATO member, should get the necessary diplomatic, financial, and logistical support from the United States. Hungary, which took part in the airport mission as a NATO member, and Pakistan could also be involved.

American and Turkish defence officials are still negotiating the matter, and Turkey’s public opinion is divided. There is no clarity on whether Turkish troops would stay as part of another NATO mission, or on their own such as Ankara’s military deployments to Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

Erdogan’s announcement came with Turkey’s NATO membership being questioned, not only among its Western allies but also inside the country. Turkey’s relations with the West have been strained because of its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The acquisition was slammed because the batteries are not compatible with NATO systems. Also roiling relations are Ankara’s military presence in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and its oil-and-gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean that have brought Turkey and Greece at loggerheads.

Ankara believes it was abandoned by its allies when they withdrew their air defence systems from the Syrian border, despite Turkey perceiving a direct threat from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish armed group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey says is an offshoot of the PKK.

Ankara’s purchase of the multibillion-dollar S-400s triggered unprecedented US sanctions on its NATO ally. Under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, any foreign government working with the Russian defence sector finds itself in the crosshairs of American sanctions.

‘A great Islamic country’

Turkey has more than 500 troops in Afghanistan as part of a noncombat NATO mission. The soldiers have overseen training Afghan security forces, and some still serve at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in the capital.

As NATO’s only Muslim member, Turkey’s noncombat troops have maintained a close relationship with all ethnic groups, including the Taliban, the Islamist movement and military organisation spread across Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban – as it continues to seize territory – has rejected Ankara’s proposal to guard and run Kabul’s airport after US-led NATO forces depart.

“Turkey was part of NATO forces in the past 20 years so as such, they should withdraw from Afghanistan on the basis of the agreement we signed with the US on February 29, 2020,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in June.

“Otherwise, Turkey is a great Islamic country. Afghanistan has had historical relations with it. We hope to have close and good relations with them as a new Islamic government is established in the country in future,” he added.

Estimates suggest the Taliban controls nearly half of the 400 districts in Afghanistan. However, a Taliban delegation in Russia on Friday claimed 85 percent of Afghan territory was under the group’s control.

Analysts suggest Turkey cannot stay in Afghanistan unless the Taliban agrees to it. In the Turkish capital, the general perception is the Taliban is an undeniable reality in Afghanistan. Officials say the group has transformed its hardline policies and is not what it used to be 20 years ago.

Fighters who are against the Taliban patrol in Ghorband district, Parwan province, in late June [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

‘Military victory’

Hikmet Cetin, Turkey’s former deputy prime minister and NATO’s former senior civilian representative for Afghanistan, said despite the Taliban’s claims to have changed, there is no answer to “how much”.

However, he is one of those who believe it is Turkey’s historical and cultural responsibility to stay and assist the Afghan people after the NATO withdrawal, as long as Ankara has support from the West – along with the Taliban’s approval.

“While Taliban’s political wing is in favour of reconciliation, the military wing is chasing a military victory. They want to reconcile. Otherwise, nothing will have changed there in the last 19 years,” Cetin told Al Jazeera.

He highlighted that Afghanistan needs support and any government in Kabul will require international recognition. It is still unclear whether foreign missions would stay in a country ruled by hardliners, but a functioning airport is what everyone needs in Kabul, he noted.

International relations professor Mesut Hakki Casin said Turkey and the Taliban would somehow agree as “there is no impossible in diplomacy.”

He argued that Turkey and the US turned a new page in relations during the recent NATO leaders summit. “The US is a superpower, Turkey is not. For its vital interests, Turkey will stay.”

Casin underlined that Turkish troops have a positive image in the country, and they have always acted within the scope of the law and never had any direct conflict with the Taliban.

‘Take an active role’

Given its economic fragility and strained relations with the West, Erdogan wants to ensure the necessary support is provided for his military by the United States to stay in Afghanistan, observers say.

“Member states should uphold their founding principles and strengthen the alliance,” Erdogan said at a press conference in Brussels last month.

“From the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, from Europe to Asia, the alliance should take an active role wherever the security umbrella provided by NATO is needed. The period is not an escape from responsibility but a period of taking responsibility. In particular, NATO needs to take more effective initiatives in the face of global challenges.”

Despite his belief that Turkey should stay and protect Kabul’s airport, Cetin said the main reason behind Ankara’s proposal is to please Washington.

“They are discussing Afghanistan without the Afghan government and the Taliban,” he said, noting there has not been any change of heart by local tribes over the Turkish mission’s extension.

A military source, who asked not to be named, pointed out Turkey’s noncombat troops can only continue at the Kabul airport for two more years, and there is not a road map for their military presence after that. What will be binding for Turkey is whether it will be able to conduct proper public diplomacy among the ethnic groups of Afghanistan, a highly complex country.

The security situation in Afghanistan has rapidly deteriorated as foreign troops withdraw after 20 years, and hundreds of Afghan service members have crossed the border into Tajikistan in response to advances by the Taliban.

Tajikistan on Wednesday called on members of a Russian-led military bloc to help it deal with security challenges emerging from Afghanistan, hours after Moscow pledged to defend its regional allies affected by the unrest.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was ready to use its military base in Tajikistan, one of its biggest abroad, to ensure the security of its allies in the region.

After the top Russian diplomat raised this option, some observers questioned whether this would lead to possible cooperation between Moscow and Ankara – if Turkey succeeds in persuading the US and the Taliban for its troops to stay.

Source: Al Jazeera