Who controls the Kabul airport has become a crucial aspect of US withdrawal. Turkey is willing to help as long as Washington addresses some compelling factors.
Turkey’s role in Afghanistan has become more prominent with US President Joe Biden and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently agreeing that Ankara would take a lead role in guarding Kabul’s international airport.
Despite his willingness, Erdogan however said Turkey can't ignore the Taliban threat and would need “diplomatic, logistic and financial assistance" from the United States and additional help from Pakistan and Hungary if it were to maintain troops in Afghanistan to protect and run the airport.
The Biden administration hasn't decided yet how to support or conduct operations against the Taliban after the troop pullout. As the 20-year US-led mission to defeat the Taliban has failed, Afghanistan is once again staring at the possibility of another civil war.
The Taliban fighters, who are brimming with confidence, are engaging the Afghan forces in bloody tit-for-tat battles in several provinces. The fears that the Taliban could overrun the Afghan security apparatus have become all too real. The Afghan forces fear that they might be left in the lurch after the US withdrawal since they heavily relied on NATO intelligence and logistics support.
Enayat Najafizada, the founder of Kabul-based think-tank Institute of War and Peace Studies, says the withdrawal has already created a security void and led to intensified fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban across the country.
“The US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan proved to be a rushed decision without taking ground realities into consideration.The Taliban have overrun nearly 40 districts across the country in the past month. Out of 387 districts in Afghanistan, the fighting is ongoing in 116 districts in the country”, Najafizada told TRT World.
Around 7,000 forces from 36 countries involved in the NATO mission and 2,500 US troops have already left Afghanistan.
US air support has already risen in recent weeks to counter the Taliban's offensives. The insurgents have already seized several districts and overrun Afghan military bases.
While Pakistan has categorically refused to let the US or NATO use its soil for drone attacks against the Taliban, NATO officials have reportedly approached Qatar, seeking access to one of its military bases for much-needed training of Afghan special forces. Qatar has not responded to the request yet.
The significance of airports
In the mountainous landlocked country where the Taliban has been gaining more territories as well as political power, highways are not secure. Therefore, airports are crucial not just for Afghans to connect to the world, but also for hosting international aid organisations, diplomatic missions and military forces.
Obaidullah Baheer, lecturer of Peace and Conflict Resolution at Kardan University in Kabul, says airports hold symbolic and practical importance for all states.
“Most civil wars eventually become a race to capture important state infrastructure, primarily amongst them are airports. And despite the symbolic importance of such infrastructure it also usually serves as a primary supply route which can then be cut off or controlled by the opponents who manage to capture them”, Baheer told TRT World.
Thereby, the international airport in Kabul is highly prioritised in the post-NATO era. Some countries even conditioned their presence with the security of airports and air transportation.
Last month Australia, whose forces were involved in war crimes scandals in the country shut its embassy due to security concerns.
“Without a functional Kabul airport after the NATO withdrawal, it would be difficult to maintain diplomatic presence as well as the operations of aid and development organisations given that the international airliners wouldn’t fly into Kabul. Securing Kabul airport and providing technical support will help the airport continue functioning”, Najafizada said.
Turkey, as the second-largest military in NATO, has 500-strong troops on the ground and Ankara already runs the military and logistic operations in the Kabul airport.
Turkey’s growing regional influence
Ankara has stretched its muscles across its hinterland over the years and gained significant experience in its military operations. It has conducted airstrikes on terror groups in Iraq, carried out multiple ground operations in Syria, and backed an UN-recognised government in Libya on both military and diplomatic counts. It has also changed the war in favour of Azerbaijan against Armenia with its highly effective drone technology.
But this comes with its own costs too. Turkey’s pro-active offshore engagements have not been welcomed by its traditional Western allies, particularly the US.
On the other hand, Turkey’s relations with Russia aren't warm either. Ankara has stood against the Russia-backed Assad regime in Syria and denounced Russian aggression in Ukraine while supporting Azerbaijan against Russia-backed Armenia, and improving ties with former Soviet states in the Baltic region and central Asia. Turkey is not hesitant to limit Russian influence.
Hence, due to Ankara's two-pronged diplomacy aimed at securing national interests, President Joe Biden said, “there are no problems in Turkey-US ties that don’t have a solution”.
The Afghan government has not issued a statement on whether it would accept the Turkish protection of the airport and expansion of the Turkish military.
But Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman said Turkey should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the 2020 deal effectively rejecting Ankara's proposal to guard and run Kabul's airport.
For Baheer, it is not unexpected.
“The Taliban through the unconditional withdrawal of foreign troops are enjoying their winning momentum. The vision of a total military victory is so strong that it is muffling the settlement seeking voices from within the Taliban movement. Hence, any offer to contribute to the security of the current regime will be perceived as a stand against the Taliban by the movement”, Obaiduallah said.
But Najafizada says Turkey’s military support would change the picture.
“Turkey support will be vital for the Afghan government to hold their ground and sustain as well as signal to the Taliban that a military takeover will not happen and that the conflict will only have a political solution”, Najafizada said.
“As a NATO member and Muslim country, Turkey can encourage all political actors for unity in Kabul and work to garner regional consensus for the Afghan peace and reconciliation process to come to fruition,” he said.