Following the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram Airfield, the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul has become the last stand in America’s 20-year campaign in Afghanistan. With the Taliban on the offensive, the issue of security arrangements at this highly strategic installation must be resolved before the U.S. and NATO complete their withdrawal.
Recently, Turkey has offered to keep its troops in Afghanistan and continue guarding and operating the airport post-U.S. withdrawal. Before agreeing to this offer, the U.S. and NATO should take into consideration how this offer is going to benefit Turkey’s interests in Afghanistan, its regional aspirations, and its position within NATO.
In 2001, Turkey joined the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan with the condition that its troops will be excluded from conducting explicit counterinsurgency operations. Turkey remained in Afghanistan after the ISAF mission ended as part of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. The 600-strong Turkish force contingent trained, advised, and assisted the 111th Capital Division of the Afghan National Army, the Kabul City Police, and other security agencies in Kabul.
Furthermore, Turkish troops are guarding and operating the Kabul Airport, Afghanistan’s main gateway. Being a landlocked country with roads deemed unsafe to travel due to security risks, the airport is critical for those actors wanting to sustain a strategic presence in Afghanistan. The airport provides foreign embassies the ability to maintain day-to-day operations and have an emergency evacuation route. It also serves as the port of entry for international aid workers and health care providers that assist in providing basic services.
Turkey Priorities in Afghanistan
Officially, Turkey states that its foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on four pillars: “maintenance of unity and integrity of Afghanistan”; “providing security and stability in the country”; “strengthening of broad based political structure in which popular participation is a priority”; “restoring peace and prosperity by eliminating terrorism and extremism”.
Turkey’s actions in Afghanistan, however, should not be seen in isolation, but as a larger effort to extend Turkey’s influence throughout the region. With ambitions for regional leadership, Turkey has been trying to expand its influence through assertive involvement in various neighboring regions, including Afghanistan-Pakistan. While officially working under NATO’s banner, Turkey distanced itself from the U.S.-led war efforts against the Taliban and launched independent diplomatic initiatives.
First, Turkey focuses on improving trilateral relations between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Turkey has hosted several Afghan-centric conferences, such as the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, and arranged numerous meetings between Afghan and Pakistani leaders.
Second, Turkey supports the Turkic language-speaking minorities in Afghanistan by establishing Turkish schools, providing scholarships, hosting local Turkic leaders, supporting cultural immersion experiences, etc. All serve to increase Turkey’s soft power and its regional leadership aspirations in Afghanistan and neighboring Turkic countries.
Third, Turkey believes that by offering to safeguard the Kabul airport post-U.S. withdrawal, it could decrease tensions with the U.S. and improve Turkey’s position within NATO. By taking on a job no one else wants, Turkey could repair its relationship with Washington that has been strained by years of disputes, most intensely Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 Russian missile-defense system that NATO considers a threat to its security.
Furthermore, if the offer will be accepted, Turkey will gain additional diplomatic leverage in future negotiations with the U.S. and NATO. Already, the European members of NATO are dependent on Turkey for preventing millions of Syrian refugees from crossing into the EU. With Turkey’s growing influence in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and across the Middle East, the U.S. and NATO could find themselves unable to act, if needed, against malign Turkish policies if they are overly dependent on it.
With U.S. and NATO troops’ withdrawal almost complete, a solution to the security arrangements at Kabul’s Airport must be found. Turkey’s offer could provide that solution. However, the implications of such a solution should be taken into consideration. By understanding that Turkey’s offer is far from an act of altruism, but rather, of grand Turkish strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia, the U.S. and NATO could make a calculated decision that understands the challenges and implications of accepting Turkey’s offer.
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