Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan caused waves at the June 2021 NATO summit, announcing that Turkey would continue to protect Kabul airport following the complete NATO withdrawal. Kabul airport is Afghanistan’s principal air connection to the outside world, and vital for the security of diplomats and aid workers in the country.
The proposal needs to be seen in the context of the broad militarisation of Turkish foreign policy. In recent years, Ankara has deployed armed forces for geopolitical leverage in Syria, Somalia, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and Azerbaijan. The associated costs have remained very low, further emboldening Turkish policy-makers. In Somalia and Syria the Turkish military also gained experience operating in theatres where armed militants pose significant security challenges.
The main factor behind the airport proposal, however, is Turkish-American relations: Ankara hopes to regain favour with Washington after a string of diplomatic crises. The Turkish side knows its hand is weakened by issues such as its acquisition of the Russian S400 air defence system and Washington’s responses including CAATSA sanctions and removing Turkish manufacturers from the supply chain for the new F35 warplane. The proposal to help out in Afghanistan emerged as an obvious way to improve bilateral relations with Washington.
As the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, Turkey played important roles in Afghanistan. Former Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin served as the NATO’s first Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan and Turkish officers twice commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). There are currently 500 Turkish soldiers serving with the NATO mission. Turkey never deployed a combat force, however. The Taliban in turn avoided targeting Turkish forces; there has in fact only been one attack on a Turkish unit.
Additionally, Turkish state institutions and NGOs conduct a broad range of cultural and educational activities and supply extensive humanitarian aid. Reports confirm the ability of Turkish officials and volunteers to engage with Afghan society on equal terms. Shared religious and cultural elements certainly help. Although the Taliban accuses of Ankara being too pro-Uzbek, Turkey is viewed very positively across Afghan society. This, together with its ability to talk with all sides and its non-combat role in ISAF, places Turkey in a unique position.
However, protecting Kabul airport would change the nature of Turkey’s involvement. While the Afghan government welcomed the idea, the Taliban has repeatedly declared that it will not tolerate even a residual foreign force. That implies that the Taliban would target Turkish troops risking drastic consequences for Turkey. In order to avoid this, Turkey’s extended stay requires prior agreement with all Afghan parties, and Ankara will use its diplomatic capacity to seek such an agreement. Moreover, rather than focusing solely on leaving a residual force, Turkey could use its diplomatic and humanitarian leverage to pursue a more comprehensive approach to the Afghan problem.
The current peace agreement involves only the United States and the Taliban; there is as yet no peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As the withdrawal of NATO forces accelerates, the conflict is now between the Taliban and Afghan government forces. Despite NATO’s decades of investment, the Afghan army is no match for the Taliban. In fact, a major Taliban offensive is already under way. Kabul may not fall immediately, but time is on the side of the insurgents. But if the Taliban overplays its hand and tries to dominate the entire country, there will be a backlash, particularly from the non-Pashtun ethnic communities.
In that case, Afghanistan is likely to descend back into civil war. Under such circumstances, a Turkish military presence would be too risky and unsustainable, even with agreements with the government and the Taliban. Rather than focusing only on protecting Kabul airport, Turkey should place its diplomatic weight behind a peaceful settlement between the Taliban and the government before violence spirals out of control. The first step towards a broader agreement between the Afghan parties themselves would be for Ankara to reach agreement with each of them. This road is arguably a stony one, but offers much greater rewards. Turkey would certainly need the support of other countries to overcome the obstacles involved.
The first challenge is to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghan government, which Turkey and the international community have so far failed to achieve. Here, Turkey can benefit from its exceptionally good relations with Pakistan and Qatar. Qatar is home to the Taliban’s only external office and relations are cordial. Pakistan, where many senior Taliban leaders reside, has the greatest leverage. Even though large segments of Afghan society frown on Pakistan’s involvement in their country, its influence over the Taliban would be crucial for reaching a negotiated settlement.
Europe should be more active and support Ankara’s efforts diplomatically and economically. As well as that being the morally right thing to do, Europe has a tangible interest too. A resurgence of fighting in Afghanistan would trigger a wave of migration. Afghans are already the second-largest migrant community in Turkey after the 3.6 million Syrians, and they formed the second-largest group of new asylum applications in Germany in 2020. Given Iran’s open door policy, it would be realistic to expect waves of Afghan migration to Turkey and on to Europe. The spectre of a new refugee crisis looms.