Turkey’s surprise — and conditional — proposal to run the Kabul airport would prove critical in providing security and stability after the US withdrawal, but many regional and political challenges remain.
A few days before the historic NATO summit on June 14, international news agencies received news that Turkey was trying to reach an agreement with the United States to run and guard the Hamid Karzai Airport in Afghanistan’s capital.
Turkey’s move comes as the US prepares to put an end to its twenty-year adventure in Afghanistan and reach an agreement with its allies. The Biden government had declared that it would withdraw from Afghanistan totally on September 11, 2021, which previous US presidents had promised, but could not realise.
Supporters of the withdrawal argue that the war cannot be won by accumulating NATO forces. In alignment with this view, the US government was already pulling its troops: the number of US soldiers, which was around 40,000 in 2008, has already decreased to 2,500.
Supporters of troop withdrawal claim that Afghanistan is no longer a place that might jeopardise US national security — the original reason behind the mission. In addition, an Afghan army was formed and geared up with modern weapons to fight the Taliban.
What will happen to Afghanistan if NATO allies fully withdraw from the country? Even though direct negotiations took place between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, the meeting did not deliver the best results for Afghanistan.
Many international observers started to argue that the Taliban may even seize Kabul shortly after the complete withdrawal. The Taliban has already started taking over certain places, even without a full withdrawal.
Turkey's surprise initiative and its conditional proposal to the US come to the fore exactly at this point. Turkey wants to continue to run and secure the Kabul Hamid Karzai Airport which will be the most critical place in Afghanistan after the withdrawal— if certain conditions are met.
This airport is of vital importance both for Afghanistan to continue its global integration and the diplomatic missions that will remain in the country.
Turkey’s regional initiatives
So why did Turkey make this proposal, which is obviously risky, albeit conditionally, to the US and its NATO allies?
First, Turkey has already been running the Hamid Karzai airport successfully for six years and has gained significant experience in this regard.
Second, Turkey could employ its success in Afghanistan as an effective trump card in the ongoing diplomatic talks with the West. It is no secret that Turkey has had serious tensions with US governments in recent years, whether due to the S-400s or other problems.
Third, Turkey seeks to maintain its friendly relations with Afghanistan, which date back to the 1920s, by keeping an active, constructive, stabilising and friendly role in the country.
Finally, Afghanistan is of immense geopolitical importance and China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made the competition even more critical. As a key regional actor in Eurasia, Turkey wants to become more influential there. This region makes up an integral part of the geopolitics of the Turkic world, to which Turkey attaches great importance.
The Taliban challenge
Just after the Erdogan-Biden meeting at the NATO Summit, a US delegation arrived in Ankara to meet with Turkish officials. According to the information given by Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, negotiations with the US delegation are continuing.
Though no comprehensive explanation has yet been made about the content of the meetings, it can be speculated that Turkey does not want to provide security to the airport alone and wants the US and NATO to be involved in some way. It should also come as no surprise that other problematic issues in US relations are also on the agenda.
Convincing the Americans of the conditions is not Turkey's only challenge.
Even though the Afghan government had already given the green light before, Ankara needs to establish secure relations with all parties to the conflict, including the Taliban. Though the Taliban's initial response to Turkey’s offer was not very promising, it has not put the Turkish mission in the category of its enemies; its attitudes to the Turkish forces in Afghanistan has been different from other military missions in the country, even though it considers the mission to be among the “foreign forces”. Turkey will likely want to act with Pakistan on the Taliban issue — Erdogan has already partially expressed possible cooperation with Pakistan.
However, we do not yet know how this possible cooperation will be met by the Afghan government, and the Pakistani government has not yet given a positive or negative response.
Another critical point is the delicate relations between the Taliban and foreign missions, particularly the US. Without a doubt, Turkey would need logistical, financial and military equipment and personnel to guard the airport. Even if the Taliban accepted the presence of Turkish mission in the country, no one could expect the Taliban to accept keeping an American military mission. This fact would be a big challenge to the Turkish offer, and still needs to be clarified.
If the American presence in Afghanistan were limited to the sphere of civilian missions, the Taliban may accept this. In that case, however, the Turkish government could find itself in a very difficult position domestically against the allegations of the political opposition that the government sent Turkish troops to the “hell” that American soldiers “escaped”.
While the withdrawal will benefit Russia, further chaos in Afghanistan will also worry it. Turkey's cooperation with Pakistan on this issue may also draw India into the field, which is another factor making bilateral and multilateral relations much more complex for Ankara.
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