Turkey’s Afghanistan gambit

Events are hurtling forward at a startling pace in Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal is well ahead of schedule. Taliban offensives have been so successful that even the Taliban themselves have been surprised and somewhat overwhelmed by the new territories they now control. Meanwhile, Turkey is still in negotiations to take over security at Kabul International Airport. For some, the complexities of these negotiations may seem odd: this is, after all, just an airport. But in Afghanistan, nothing is simple or straightforward. In a landlocked country, whoever controls Kabul’s airport controls, in a very practical sense, access to Afghanistan. So, what exactly is Turkey getting itself into, and why?

Adnan R. Khan: Why is this such a key facility for Afghanistan?

Ilter Turan: The important point here is access to the country. When the U.S. announced its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan, the critical question that came up was: if the Afghan government cannot come to a negotiated agreement with the Taliban, what will be the access point to Afghanistan? Kabul airport is a major point through which diplomats travel; it is the point through which aid missions come to Afghanistan; this is the place where many logistical supplies are delivered. So, the loss of this airport to the Taliban or a lack of security there would lead to a situation in which diplomatic missions may no longer be willing to stay in Afghanistan. It may also mean that Afghanistan would be cut off from major international aid.

Adnan R. Khan: Kabul airport is a sprawling facility, not only with a civilian component but also military. Does Turkey have the resources to mount a proper defense of it?

Ilter Turan: Turkey would only be able to secure the airport if there is consensus for it to do so. That means both the Taliban and the Afghan government agree that the security of the airport should be given to the Turks. This also means that other actors involved in Afghanistan, starting with the U.S. and NAT•, must agree to providing both political, logistical and material support to Turkish troops. It would also be easier if there were other troops along with the Turks to render it into an international operation. Turkey on its own would find itself in a very difficult position since it could not devote extensive additional manpower or resources to the operation, in no small part because its military is currently involved a number of other conflicts in other parts of the world.

Adnan R. Khan: Turkey has reached out to Pakistan and Hungary for support. Approaching the Hungarians seems a bit odd but Pakistan, of course, makes sense. What does Pakistan have to offer?

Ilter Turan: Pakistani support is important primarily because of the assumed influence the Pakistanis have over the Taliban. Pakistan would be expected to bring in a restraining function to the Taliban so that they will not attack Turkish troops. It would also broaden the basis of legitimacy of the international security operation.

But let me also address the question of Hungary. It may seem like a mystery on the surface but I think the way to understand it is that Turkey wants this to be an international operation. Turkey is in Afghanistan under the NATO banner so it would naturally want another NATO member alongside it. Why Hungary? It may be that Hungary is one of the few NATO members that may be willing to join to gain American favor as its standing in the EU erodes. And Turkey’s naming Hungary suggests that there may have already been some conversations about this possibility.

Adnan R. Khan: Clearly, this will be a challenging mission at a number of levels. Why would Turkey take it on?

Ilter Turan: Let me begin by noting that while Turkey has consented to the possibility of providing security at Kabul airport, there is no final agreement that it will do so. I think because of the state of relations between Turkey and the U.S., which Turkey wants to improve, Turkey is amenable to assuming this responsibility. But it wants to make sure that it gets something in return. In fact, there is some speculation already that, in return, Turkey wants to be reintegrated into the F-35 program. That hinges on the U.S. accepting Turkey’s offer to keep its S-400 missiles in stock but not render them operational rather than send them out of the country, a solution which the U.S. has so far rejected. Turkey probably expects the U.S. to become a bit more amenable to the Turkish position.

Adnan R. Khan: How much leverage does Turkey have over the U.S.?

Ilter Turan: The manner in which American forces vacated Bagram airbase last week – as if they just ran away in the middle of the night – suggests a sense of urgency on the American side. The critical point is to what extent the Americans feel that they should make compromises with Turkey in return for Turkey assuming the responsibility it is being asked to assume. Here, we must remember the components of the political background to the negotiations. Turkey does not have a very good image in the U.S., neither in Congress nor at the White House. With the flimsy majority Biden has in Congress, it’s not clear to what degree he is willing to defend Turkey vis a vis the US Congress to accommodate Turkish expectations. So, this is going to be an interesting and long negotiation process and it may end up going in a direction or end in a way that none of us expect.

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