Turkey securing and operating Afghanistan’s Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport following the withdrawal of NATO forces from the war-torn country comes with potential opportunities and risks depending on the scope of the mission, an expert told Anadolu Agency (AA).
Rahimullah Farzam, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in the capital Ankara, said that according to the preliminary agreement reached with the United States, it’s inferred that Turkey’s responsibility will be limited to ensuring the security of the airport and that Ankara will not participate in military operations, as it hasn’t so far.
“As we’ve pointed out earlier, Kabul airport is, perhaps, Afghanistan’s only gateway to the world. For this reason, the airport is of vital importance for the diplomatic missions in the country to continue their activities following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. The safe operation of the airport is also very critical for international aid organizations to be able to deliver humanitarian aid to the country. Turkey being the only Muslim country in NATO and the close ties it has with the Afghan government and people are the determining factors in the undertaking of this task,” he said.
He added that Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan may enable it to further strengthen its cooperation with the country in many areas, from the economy to security.
“Although there are allegations that the U.S. is considering transferring the protection of the airport to a private company as an alternative to Turkey, past experiences reveal that this method is not realistic. Therefore, Turkey undertaking such a critical task is of great importance for both Ankara-Washington relations and Ankara-NATO relations. The mission that Turkey will undertake in Afghanistan will not only create an area of cooperation with the U.S. but will also strengthen Ankara’s position in NATO,” he said.
Farzam underlined that Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan would increase Ankara’s influence in the region in the long run.
Though, he said that the geography of Afghanistan could also present many challenges for Turkey along with the new opportunities it presents.
“Since many countries in the region have been involved in the Afghanistan issue for years and each of them is following different strategies that are in line with their own interests, a consensus has yet to be reached on supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. The strategies of the countries in the region, which have been involved in the Afghanistan issue for years, have some serious differences between each other. For this reason, there will be just as many actors who will object to Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan as those who won’t speak up.”
While Farzam said that Pakistan would support Turkey’s military presence in the region, India, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabi would oppose it.
“The challenges that Turkey will face in Afghanistan do not seem to be limited to the attitudes of the regional actors. Although Turkey has good relations with many local actors, including the Kabul administration, the Taliban is against Ankara’s possible mission in Afghanistan,” he added.
Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s Qatar Office spokesperson, said in an interview with Reuters on June 10 that “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 U.S. on 29th Feb 2020.”
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid took this statement a step further and said that Turkey would be treated no different than the U.S if it were to remain in Afghanistan. Speaking to Iranian media, he said: “Turkey is a Muslim, brother country. However, since it’s also a NATO member, if it remains in Afghanistan, it would not be any different from the U.S. for us.”
The Taliban’s main concern over Turkey’s new mission in Afghanistan is that Ankara is a NATO member. The Taliban call the 20-year armed insurgency that they’ve been staging “jihad against foreign forces.” This discourse has a crucial role in gathering followers and legitimizing the armed struggle conducted by the Taliban. Despite the Doha agreement that calls for all foreign forces to leave the country, the Taliban have yet to fulfill this requirement. Therefore, the Taliban are concerned that Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan as a NATO member would be perceived as NATO not leaving the country.
“Despite its rapid spread in recent days, the Taliban have yet to conquer the city centers of any of the 34 cities in Afghanistan. For this reason, Turkey would not be facing the Taliban during its mission in Kabul for now. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no risks involved. It’s a big question mark how Turkey would protect Kabul airport, which is nearly intertwined with the city center, without military patrols. During military patrols, the Taliban can attack foreign forces with remote-controlled bombs and bomb-laden vehicles placed on the side of the street,” Farzam explained.
Turkey, whose forces in Afghanistan have always comprised of noncombatant troops, offered to guard and run Hamid Karzai International Airport after NATO’s withdrawal.
It has been holding talks with the U.S. on logistic and financial support for the mission, as questions remain on how security will be assured along major transport routes and at the airport, which is the main gateway to the capital, Kabul.
The situation in Afghanistan heated up after U.S. President Joe Biden announced that all American forces will withdraw from the war-torn country by Sept. 11, with NATO allies following suit. Biden and Erdoğan discussed the issue at a recent NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels.
Erdoğan said after the meeting that Turkey was looking for “diplomatic, logistic and financial assistance” from the U.S. to protect and operate the airport. Turkey also wanted Pakistan and Hungary to be involved in the mission, he said.
A decision is yet to be reached on the Turkish mission to operate and secure the airport, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Friday, adding that contact between Turkey and the United States on the issue will continue.
Ankara has been running the military and logistic operations of the Kabul airport for the last six years as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission.
Turkey has more than 500 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s mission to train Afghan security forces. Some of these soldiers still serve at the airport.
An agreement on the protection of the airport has become increasingly urgent as the final withdrawal of the remaining 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops and 76,000 allied NATO soldiers nears conclusion. The airfield had been the epicenter of the countrywide military operation to defeat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.