Turkey is hammering out a deal with the US to take over security at Kabul’s civilian airport, offering the Nato partners a rare chance for co-operation after a series of disputes.
The US this week left its main military base in Afghanistan, part of an accelerated withdrawal that has led to a resurgent Taliban gaining ground and fears the country could descend into chaos.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Joe Biden at last month’s Nato summit that Turkey could run security at the airport if the US president provided it with the “diplomatic, logistical and financial support” required for the mission. Erdogan also acknowledged “the reality of the Taliban”, saying Ankara would continue talks with the militants.
Hulusi Akar, Turkish defence minister, said he and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin were due to speak by phone about Afghanistan yesterday. While “no definitive decision has been reached” with the US, Turkey is determined to make “contributions for the security, peace and welfare of the Afghan people”, Akar said this week, according to state broadcaster TRT.
Yet far more hinges on Turkey reaching an accord with the Taliban, which is advancing towards the capital and says it will not tolerate any foreign forces on Afghan soil after the US leaves, said Hikmet Cetin, a former Turkish foreign minister who has served as Nato’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is now in the midst of a de facto civil war. Turkey needs a ceasefire and a deal with the Taliban, which is now telling it: ‘You came with Nato, and you’ll leave with Nato’,” he said. “Without the Taliban’s approval, Turkey assuming this role is a mistake.”
Keeping Hamid Karzai International airport open as a secure gateway is crucial if embassies and aid groups are to remain in Afghanistan. “We are aware that the Kabul airport must remain open and operating. If it’s not, embassies will withdraw, turning Afghanistan into an isolated state,” Akar said.
Turkey, Nato’s second-biggest army, already runs military operations at the airport. Akar has ruled out increasing the 500-strong battalion, and Erdogan has said he hopes to recruit both Hungary and Pakistan to the mission.
Turkey, which has backed the US in a non-combat role since the war began in 2001, shares religious and other ties with Afghanistan. Erdogan also sees the initiative as a chance to “recalibrate relations” with the US after years of estrangement over divergent foreign policies, said Hasan Selim Ozertem, an independent security analyst. “Turkey believes this step can show it remains an indispensable Nato partner, a reminder that it can work with the US,” he said.
Since Biden’s election, Erdogan has pledged to mend ties with the US, which has put sanctions on Ankara over its purchase of a Russian missile system designed to shoot down Nato jets. US officials declined to comment on progress towards a deal with Turkey.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi and Aime Williams in Washington