While Russia, China, and Iran were seen as the most likely countries to supplant America’s influence in Afghanistan, reports have emerged recently that Turkey could also play a future role in the country. Ankara has offered to guard and run Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport after the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leave Afghanistan. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden in their meeting in June at the NATO summit; the two leaders, however, did not come to a deal. The negotiations between Ankara and Washington on this matter remain ongoing.
Kabul’s airport is a vital entry point for diplomats and aid workers. Since road travel continues to be unsafe, the airport is what mainly connects the country to the outside world. Already, Afghanistan is witnessing increased violence. This is likely to endure after the U.S. completes its withdrawal, which makes Kabul’s airport a crucial evacuation point. If Washington and its allies reach a deal with Ankara, Washington would be able to proceed with its plans to maintain the American Embassy in the country after the U.S. forces leave.
Ankara’s offer is widely viewed as an attempt by Turkey to alleviate tensions with the Americans.
Ankara’s offer is widely viewed as an attempt by Turkey to alleviate tensions with the Americans. The relations between both countries have been strained by years of disputes. Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missiles, in particular, has furthered such pressures on the Washington-Ankara ties. Thus, reaching a deal over running the airport could ease the tension between the two countries.
Turkey has suggested partnering with Hungary and Pakistan in running the airport. However, the Afghan government downplayed any military role for the latter in Ankara’s mission. Given the Kabul-Islamabad tensions, it is hard to see the Afghan government accepting a Pakistani role in Afghanistan’s future.
Undoubtedly, Turkey will be able to expand its influence in Afghanistan should it run the airport. Middle East expert and former U.S. State Department analyst, Gregory Aftandilian, told Inside Arabia, “Turkey has long had an interest in Afghanistan, so on one level, it is not surprising that Ankara has offered to run the Kabul airport.”
Aftandilian – who is a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC – added, “Being in charge of Kabul airport would deepen Turkey’s longstanding ties with Afghanistan, as Ankara would be in a position to approve or deny the flow of goods and people coming in and out of the country.”
Indeed, the two countries enjoy a historic relationship. After the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was the second country to recognize the Republic of Turkey. Arguably, the course of the solid relationship between Ankara and Kabul changed, however, when the Soviets decided to invade Afghanistan around four decades ago. Vinay Kaura notes, in an analysis for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, that Turkey “opted to become a party to the ‘Afghan jihad’ at the behest of the Western alliance to achieve its own strategic goals.”
In 1992, the United Islamic Front for Salvation of Afghanistan (UIFSA), also known as the Northern Alliance, was formed in opposition to former Afghan President Mohamed Najibullah’s government. While success was on the alliance’s side, it disintegrated until the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. Still, by the late 1990s, the alliance bolstered its resistance to the Taliban. The alliance is known to have been backed by a number of countries, including Iran and Russia. Turkey had also supported the alliance, particularly the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (also known as the Junbish Party), which is led by the Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum. The Turks and Uzbeks tend to share a Turkic heritage, and this is seen as one reason Ankara supported Dostum.
Following the Taliban government’s ousting in 2001, Turkey—a member of NATO—sent its troops to the country. It is worth noting, as Kaura points out, that “although actively engaged in the training of Afghan security forces and in providing logistical assistance to other international forces, the Turkish military has avoided deploying its troops in direct counter-insurgency operations, despite pressure from Washington, and has only taken part in post-conflict peacebuilding measures in Afghanistan.” For the past six years, Turkey has been running military and logistics operations at Kabul airport as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission.
In addition to supporting local NATO projects, Ankara was able to both hold trilateral Pakistan-Afghanistan-Turkey summits and play a mediating role between Kabul and Islamabad. Turkey also hopes to host and mediate the Afghan government’s peace talks with the Taliban.
Views from the Afghan Government and Taliban
On the one hand, the Afghan government does not seem to mind Turkey playing a role in the country. Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar has hailed the efforts and support of Turkey. In a recent interview with pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, he said: “Turkey securing the airport will allow Afghanistan to maintain the high capabilities in Kabul airport, which will be important for the continued presence of the diplomatic community as well as continued international assistance to the government and people of Afghanistan.”
On the other hand, the Taliban rejected Ankara’s offer to run the airport.
“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 [February 29, 2020],” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told Reuters.
The Taliban “has rejected the Turkish option, or for that matter, offers by any other country.”
University of Western Australia adjunct Professor Amin Saikal, told Inside Arabia that the Taliban “has rejected the Turkish option, or for that matter, offers by any other country.”
“I think the government would be receptive to either Turkey or, more preferably, the U.S.,” Saikal continued. “The Taliban have not indicated a preference for any country. I assume, if there is an offer from a country like Qatar, they may not object to it!” Qatar would presumably be acceptable to the Taliban because of Doha’s role in hosting peace talks and negotiating the U.S. withdrawal.
Possible Reactions from Russia, China, and Iran
Russia could be reluctant in backing Ankara’s offer. “With Turkey and Russia at odds in Syria, Libya, Armenia-Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, it would not be surprising if Moscow regarded the prospect of Turkish troops in Afghanistan as a spur to Russia doing something to assert influence there too,” Mark Katz – Russia expert and a Professor of Government and Politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government – told Inside Arabia. “Moscow, then, might respond by offering to help the Kabul government by providing some sort of assistance to it as well.”
“[Still], Moscow has established good working relations with the Taliban which it will not want to damage by sending in troops just when America is pulling its out. How Russia and other regional powers react to a Turkish military presence in Afghanistan, though, may depend on how large that presence is,” Katz said. “If Turkish forces are just there to protect the airport, then Moscow may not make too much of a fuss. And it is difficult to imagine at this point that Turkey would send a larger military force to Afghanistan at this time.”
China could endorse Ankara’s role in the hope of pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China, however, could endorse Ankara’s role in the hope of pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched eight years ago. Indeed, Beijing has various economic and geopolitical motivations behind BRI. In Afghanistan, it is in China’s interest for the country to have internal stability. That could benefit China in allowing it to both advance its BRI projects in the regional countries and invest in Afghanistan in the future.
For Iran, its ties with the Taliban have notably improved since Tehran supported their ousting two decades ago. In an article for Al Monitor, Fehim Tastekin explains that “Iranian activity has grown in Kabul, Herat, Bamiyan and Daikundi — areas inhabited by the Shiite Hazara minority — since Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps began recruiting Afghan fighters for Syria in 2013. The Taliban may be irked that Iran has now gained a foothold for interference in Afghanistan, but their relationship has notably improved, as evidenced by a series of bilateral contacts in recent years.”
Thus, Tehran seems to want the job of running Kabul’s airport—but achieving this does not appear possible for the Islamic Republic.
Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at University of Denver, told Inside Arabia: “Iran would prefer to have control of Kabul airport for themselves instead of Turkey. [Yet] given that this is not a realistic option, and that all the other options are much worse [i.e. American or Taliban control] – I think Tehran will be satisfied with this outcome.”