Turkey’s airport gambit in Afghanistan

Even as the Taliban government in Afghanistan struggles to take shape, plans to re-open the international airport in Kabul are already in motion. Turkey is still vying to play a central role in that process, as well as the future operation of the airport. As of writing, a Qatari technical team was on the ground assessing the needs of the airport and an agreement with the Taliban was close to being finalized that would hand over operations to the Turks and the Qataris. Rumors were also spreading that domestic flights could be up and running within days. Turkey has pushed hard for a leading role in running Kabul airport. Is it about to get its wish?

Adnan R. Khan: There is a positive thread in this: Turkey has quite a bit of experience running airports. Can it get Kabul’s airport up and running quickly?

Ilter Turan: There are a number of Turkish companies that operate airports internationally. Turkey also has a government agency, the Airport Management Authority, that also operates airports. So, in terms of competence, there is no question that there are enough resources and talent in Turkey to operate the relatively small airport in Kabul. But the critical question is whether these companies can manage an airport in a security environment such as in Afghanistan where a movement intending regime change is still in the process of forming a government.

There are many unknowns. We do not even know what functions the Taliban government will assume in running the airport. For example, the airport operator does not usually decide who has a valid passport, who has a valid entry visa or who should not be allowed to leave or enter the country. These are responsibilities of domestic authorities. But those authorities are in disarray at the moment. I would be concerned that in managing this in-flux situation, constant sources of friction might emerge between those who are managing the airport and the authorities who have little experience in running government agencies like civil aviation or border services, etc.

Adnan R. Khan: The Taliban are against allowing any foreign forces on their soil, including Turkey’s. So, how would security at the airport be handled?

Ilter Turan: As we already know well, the Taliban has been extremely reluctant to allow foreign forces to provide security on their soil because they see the provision of security as a prerogative of a sovereign national government. They found it even more difficult to accept the idea that Turkey would stay in Afghanistan within a NATO framework. That is out of the question.

So, if it will not be a national military force, who will it be? There are a number of companies that offer security services, including a number of Turkish companies. But again, the type of security that these people deal with and the type of security issues that Kabul airport faces are entirely different. So, you need different types of security arrangements. But the Taliban has to first agree that it cannot provide for the security of the airport by itself.

There are a number of private, military-type organizations around the world that offer security services. There is also one in Turkey but I am not sure they are prepared for this type of a job. It may be that a satisfactory security arrangement will be determined gradually. A UN approved internationally constituted military unit backed by private security may constitute a way, rendering the presence of external forces more acceptable. These comments, however, are all speculations. What we know for sure is that it will be a difficult process.

Adnan R. Khan: Turkey has been vying for control of the airport for a long time now, months in fact. Why?

Ilter Turan: In very practical terms, the airport is the only place at the moment, beyond the embassies, where some kind of international presence is needed. As for why Turkey, we must look at the context: Turkey has been isolated in its own region; it is an outcast in many circles, including NATO.

In recent months, it has been trying to mend these relationships, for example with the American administration and the EU. It had been helping the NATO mission at Kabul airport, so the thinking may be that an opportunity has arisen to build a more positive image with western partners by offering to take over the operation of the airport. In fact, a number of American officials have already thanked Turkey for the positive contribution it has made to the evacuation effort by providing security.

Beyond fence mending with allies, operating Kabul airport will also give Turkey a central role in Afghanistan. There will be a need for the world to interact with whoever holds sovereign power in Afghanistan. Its allies and the broader international community will, to some extent, become reliant on Turkey to connect with Afghanistan. Turkey will not only benefit from the role it played in helping with the evacuation effort, but will also benefit from providing this invaluable service to the global community.

And finally, Turkey still wants to appear to be an important regional actor. With the Kabul airport, it becomes a kind of central player not only with its western allies but also for the Chinese and the Russians. It believes, rightly or wrongly, that it can re-establish its reputation as a security and stability provider by demonstrating that it can influence and restrain a radical Islamist regime like the Taliban.

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