Turkey offers help securing Afghan airport, but has Erdogan bitten off more than he can chew?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to secure Afghanistan’s vital Kabul international airport in a bid to improve US-Turkey relations as American and NATO troops complete their pullout from the war-battered country. But a Taliban warning underscores the military and diplomatic challenges of the Turkish offer.
The drive to Kabul’s main airport has turned into a crawl during the 20-year US security presence in Afghanistan, with ever-increasing security checkpoints slowing travellers as they inch towards the Hamid Karzai International Airport. But it also offers a visual treat of uninterrupted views of the city’s landmark squares, with their monuments piercing through the Kabul fog as cars honk, drivers swear and hawkers dart nimbly between traffic lanes.
The squares – named after prominent anti-Taliban resistance heroes, Ahmad Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq – strike defiant notes these days as the Taliban gains ground and foreign embassies issue evacuation advisories for their nationals in Afghanistan.
— Mahshar Azadi (@1Mahshar) February 22, 2019
France on Tuesday became the latest to join the list of countries calling on their nationals to leave Afghanistan. Barely two months ago, Australia suddenly closed its embassy in Kabul, sparking a nervous guessing game among Afghans over which country will be next.
All roads appear to be leading to the exit in Afghanistan as an accelerated US troop pullout over the past few weeks has enabled a lightening Taliban sweep in several provinces. As foreign missions shrink, the security of the Kabul airport – landlocked Afghanistan’s main gateway to the world – has come under intense scrutiny.
On Tuesday, the Taliban warned Turkey against extending its troop presence in Afghanistan to secure Kabul’s international airport. In a statement posted on Twitter, the Taliban said Ankara’s plan to keep some troops to guard the airport was “reprehensible” and warned of “consequences” if Turkish officials fail to “reconsider their decision and continue the occupation of our country”.
The statement came days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US and Turkey had agreed on the “scope” of a mission to secure the Kabul airport after the withdrawal of foreign troops.
The proposal triggered weeks of high-level discussions and came as Erdogan attempts to repair US-Turkey relations under the Biden administration. Turkey is still reeling under the impact of US sanctions slapped last year for its purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian defence system has also incensed NATO, with some members questioning Turkey’s membership in the military alliance.
Meanwhile the fallout of the accelerated US withdrawal is being watched with dismay by the international community as US troops abandoned the Bagram base at night without informing their Afghan counterparts and Afghan soldiers fled across the northern border into Tajikistan, compelling Russia to provide security guarantees to the former Soviet Central Asian republic.
Inside Afghanistan, reports of Taliban atrocities in the rural areas have been mounting, and on Wednesday, George W Bush made a rare post-presidential public appeal for the rights of “Afghan women and girls” at danger of “unspeakable harm” from “the brutality of the Taliban”.
The security of the Kabul airport, essential for an international diplomatic and humanitarian presence in Afghanistan, has turned into a pressing concern and the Turkish offer appeared to hit the sweet spot for countries scrambling to cope with the fallout of the US pullout.
But the Taliban’s stern rebuke to Turkey this week underscores the dramatic power shifts on the ground and group’s diplomatic heft as peace talks are set to resume in Doha, Qatar, later this week.
The question for many analysts and Turkish nationals is whether the Erdogan administration has bitten off more than it can chew as the Taliban eyes a victory in America’s 20-year “forever war”.
Under NATO or going it alone
The Turkish airport proposal has been circulating in Afghanistan policy circles for months and the Taliban’s latest warning came as no surprise to most analysts.
“It’s not unexpected for the Taliban to react like this to the news of the agreement between the US and Turkey. For the Taliban, this means it’s an extension of the international military operation that started in late 2001,” said Ali Adili, researcher and country director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “The Taliban’s aim for the time being is for all international actors to get out of Afghanistan. Their ultimate aim would be to take Kabul, perhaps militarily and not as a part of a negotiated settlement.”
But the Taliban’s warning against an airport security arrangement also “goes against their continued assurances that they would not harm the interests of diplomatic missions and humanitarian actors in Afghanistan,” noted Adili.
Turkey has contributed troops to the NATO mission over the past two decades and currently has around 500 soldiers in non-combat missions in Afghanistan, according to Turkish military experts.
There are no details yet on the number of troops required to secure Kabul’s airport and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has ruled out increasing the 500-strong battalion in Afghanistan.
There’s also little clarity on whether Turkish troops would operate under a NATO command mission, or under a Turkish banner – such as Ankara’s military deployments to Syria, Libya, and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.
A Turkish security operation without a NATO or UN diplomatic cover is perilous, according to Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security expert and author of the book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?”.
“If it’s a UN mission, it would be easier for Turkey, it would give it the legitimacy of international peacekeeping forces,” explained Gurcan in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “Turkish soldiers could also operate under a NATO mission – which is not the case at the moment. The Americans are saying the mission should be within the framework of bilateral ties between Turkey and Afghanistan. But the Afghan government is weak, and this is risky.”
‘Can Ankara rely on Pakistan?’
In his remarks last week, Erdogan said he hopes to involve Pakistan in the airport securing mission. But that, analysts warn, is easier said than done.
A senior Pakistani official, speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, said Islamabad would expect “intelligence sharing on Afghanistan” from Turkey in return for “logistical support and passage” through Pakistan.
Islamabad has already denied the US permission to stage air attacks in Afghanistan from its soil, and a Pakistani involvement in any Turkish mission comes with its own set of challenges.
Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence establishment has long been the Taliban’s chief supporter although Pakistani governments deny backing the group and say they have limited influence over the Islamist group.
The Taliban also insists they are not beholden to Pakistan. But US negotiators dismiss the claim, noting that during the US-Taliban peace talks, Taliban representatives in Qatar would regularly fly to Pakistan to consult their leadership.
Islamabad’s involvement in Afghanistan – a source of historic anti-Pakistan sentiment among many Afghans – gives Gurcan further grounds for worry. “Pakistan is a tricky actor here. Can Ankara rely on Pakistan to be an honest partner?” asked Gurcan rhetorically.
Adili too is sceptical about Pakistani involvement in the mission. “I really do not see any kind of support from Pakistan for the Turkish mission to secure the airport. For that to happen, there should be something significant for Pakistan,” he explained.
Rules of engagement – or lack thereof
Some Turkish analysts are questioning whether the airport security mission has anything significant for Ankara’s interests in the region.
Currently, Turkey’s 500-strong troop contingent is involved in non-combat missions in Afghanistan, noted Gurcan, a former Turkish military officer who served in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s.
While Ankara has had leadership stints under NATO’s rotating arrangements in Afghanistan, Turkish troops have never engaged in armed confrontation under combat operations, he explained.
That could change rapidly at the Kabul airport – and with disastrous consequences for Turkey.
“Ankara should set the terms: what are the rules of engagement in case of an armed clash, against whom is the use of weapons allowed and not allowed, and how do Turkish soldiers coordinate their mission with Afghan security forces,” said Gurcan. “I don’t like the Americans urging Turkey to establish direct contact with the Afghan government. This is too risky.”
Biden’s ‘Istanbul track’ to nowhere
If the military risks are high, the diplomatic liabilities are even higher since Turkey – NATO’s only Muslim majority member with ethnic and cultural ties to Afghanistan – has a lot to lose.
Afghanistan is home to several Turkic ethnic groups, including the powerful Uzbeks in the north, who are traditional foes of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Ankara has historically close ties to Uzbek community leaders such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord and Afghan vice president.
In recent years, Turkey has established contact with the Taliban, following the lead of regional powers, who have also read the power tea leaves and concluded it best to engage with the likely winner of America’s “forever war”.
But Ankara’s outreach to the Taliban has still to yield diplomatic dividends.
Turkey’s special status in Afghanistan was one of the reasons the Biden administration earlier this year proposed an “Istanbul track” to jumpstart the Doha negotiations that have been dragging for years.
Not long after Biden took office, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a blunt letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in early March, instructing him to comply with Washington’s new initiatives. These included a “senior level meeting” of Taliban and Afghan government representatives that Turkey would host “in the coming weeks”, said Blinken.
>> Read more: A blunt US letter jolts Afghan women on a special day
But the weeks have turned into months and the Istanbul meeting, initially set for April 24 before it was postponed, has not materialised.
“The Taliban refused to participate in the Istanbul conference,” explained Adili, citing sources within the negotiating teams. “The Taliban favoured slow-motion talks in Qatar instead of a fast track in Istanbul.”
Turkey cooperates with US to ‘do their dirty job’
Afghanistan, with its long history of civil wars fought mostly along ethnic lines, also has divisions capable of swallowing up foreign powers operating in the country.
“Turkey must stay above sectarian, ethnic and religious identities. That’s the most challenging task for Ankara,” stressed Gurcan. “Within Afghanistan, there are also divisions between those who want to engage with Western countries and the international community, and ideological hardliners committed to Sharia-based systems.”
Turkish public opinion is not monolithic either and that’s something Erdogan’s government must carefully monitor.
While the pro-Erdogan TV channels feature experts hailing the president’s latest move to extend Ankara’s influence in Afghanistan, critics have been questioning the mission.
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Turkish public approval for Erdogan’s recent military exploits has ranged from over 70 percent in favour of operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq and Syria to a low of 30 percent for Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan crisis.
“I’m sure the Afghanistan mission will have lower public support than the mission in Libya,” said Gurcan. “Many people are asking what’s the point of sending our soldiers to Afghanistan at this time.”
Within Turkey’s ruling AK Party, there are also splits emerging between unstinting Erdogan supporters and “anti-American circles in the AK Party base who are asking why Turkey is cooperating with the Americans to do their dirty job,” explained Gurcan.
The biggest risk, according to Gurcan, is the potential hit Turkey’s soft power could take in Afghanistan.
“Turkey has soft power in Afghanistan due to its soft military victory that was won, paradoxically, by soldiers not firing their guns because of the non-combat mission,” said Gurcan. “If Turkish soldiers are deployed under an operational capacity, and if there are clashes and soldiers start shooting, that reputation that the Turkish military has built in Afghanistan over the past 15 years can easily collapse in the blink of an eye.”