Can Turkey cut a deal with the Taliban to secure Kabul's international airport?

Turkey’s offer to assume control of Afghanistan’s main international airport has not been well-received by an ascendant Taliban, adding to questions over the viability of a proposal seen as crucial to the war-town country’s future.  

The United States is on-track to complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan in September, 20 years after it went to war in the fabled ‘graveyard of empires'.

As the pull-out progresses, the Taliban has made rapid gains, with up to 223 districts now under the group's control. Meanwhile, Afghan government soldiers and civilians have fled alike, amid fears the whole country may fall in less than a year.

Amidst this uncertainty. Turkey made the surprise offer in May to retain its military forces at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in an effort to buttress its troubled relationship with the United States

For much of the last decade, the two NATO allies’ relationship has been mired in deep disagreements over Syria, Russia, the eastern Mediterranean, and the authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, Erdoğan has sought to find common ground with U.S. President Joe Biden as a struggling economy adds to the urgency to end Turkey's international isolation.

For Ankara, easing Washington’s post-withdrawal anxiety about Afghanistan’s security is a potentially attractive path that avoids making concessions elsewhere.   

Robert Pearson, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C, told Ahval that, while questions remained over the Turkish mission, both sides recognised its potential benefits.  

“This is a start, a clear indication that the U.S. is open to a productive relationship with Turkey,” the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey said. "One thing it does do is give the U.S. and Turkey one thing to agree on and work on”.

Few details about Turkey’s plans for securing Hamid Karzai International have been confirmed, but two things are already clear. First, the airport is crucial to the international community's continued diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Second, Turkey will need U.S. support to complete the mission.

Erdoğan hasn’t hesitated in pointing this out. “If Turkey is not wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan and if there will be diplomatic, logistical and financial support from the U.S., it would be very important for us,” the Turkish president said following his first meeting with Biden on June 14.

Up to 1,500 troops would be necessary to secure Hamid Karzai International post-withdrawal, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s own estimates. Only 650 U.S. soldiers are expected to remain in Kabul from September to protect the U.S. embassy.

A 500-strong Turkish military deployment is already in Afghanistan performing non-combat roles including running the military section of the Kabul airport. But under pressure from opposition parties, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar insisted in June that there will be no increase in troop numbers.

Former Turkish military officer Metin Gurcan has questioned how Turkey can fulfil its new promises without the reality changing on the ground. Writing for Al-Monitor, he said securing the airport would require military policing and patrol duties, clear combat tasks.

An unnamed Turkish government source speaking to the BBC also appeared to acknowledge the risk of combat, saying Turkish forces would be prepared for self-defence.

Bradley Bowman, a senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), told Ahval that much would also depend on the overall security situation around Kabul amid the struggle by Afghan security forces to keep the Taliban at bay.    

“The variables can change,” Bowman said. “What is the Afghan security force posture there? How stretched thin are they elsewhere? It is all very fluid.”

“The entire situation is highly unpredictable and not good. All of this would reflect what is needed at Kabul airport.”

Kabul has already proved vulnerable to attack. On Wednesday, the Taliban claimed a series of bombings in the heart of the capital’s heavily fortified green zone. A spokesperson for the group said the bombings were the “beginning of retaliatory attacks" against the Afghan government.

The incidents underscore the Taliban’s ability to make life difficult for Turkish security forces without engaging them directly. Bowman said rocket attacks near the airport alone could prove enough to shut it down for some time. On Sunday, Taliban artillery struck Kandahar airport, damaging the runway and forcing a suspension of flights.  

The Taliban has repeatedly rejected Turkey’s proposals for Hamid Karzai International. On June 18, a spokesperson for the group said the plan was “unacceptable” and that Turkey would be regarded as an invader.

Turkish officials in contact with the Taliban and dismissed these threats as posturing, according to the BBC. Last week, Erdoğan went as far as offering a public olive branch, saying Turkey “does not have any conflicting issues” with the group’s draconian interpretation of Islam.

Such an approach appears to have borne some fruit. The Taliban’s most recent statement on July 21 struck a more conciliatory tone, saying it would be happy to continue dialogue, but only after Turkey withdraws.

Despite this shift, experts believe an ascendant Taliban should not be underestimated. Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Strategic Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute for Strategy, told Ahval the group should be taken at their word.

“The Taliban has made it clear that they are uncomfortable with any prolonged presence of NATO in the country,” Rose said.

“Even if the Turkish government and the Taliban are able to achieve a relative agreement over how Turkish forces will operate to protect the airport, I expect that the Taliban will make it difficult for Turkish forces to carry out this mission.”

Erdoğan has “his work cut out for him”, she added.

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