Why Turkey wants to be in charge of securing Kabul airport
Last month, Turkey offered to assume the responsibility of running and protecting Kabul's strategic Hamid Karzai Airport--landlocked Afghanistan's main gateway to the world--after American and NATO troops complete their withdrawal from the war-battered country. As an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government continues to prove elusive, and the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates rapidly, there is a need to explore Turkey's motivations for making the offer.
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority country in NATO, has long been diplomatically and politically influential in Afghanistan. It not only has deep-rooted historical, cultural, religious and ethnic ties with Afghanistan but also with Pakistan--the Taliban's principal backer. In the past, it organised several summits between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to improve dialogue between the neighbouring nations. While playing an active role in the multifaceted efforts to end Afghanistan's decades-old conflict, Turkey maintained close ties with various competing ethnic and political factions in the country, including the Taliban.
Turkey has over 500 troops in Afghanistan, but these troops do not participate in combat--their activities are limited to providing security to the military section of the Kabul airport and training Afghan security forces. Due to its non-combatant role in Afghanistan, Turkey has better relations with the Taliban than any other NATO country and has recently been tasked with facilitating the peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Though the Taliban has already warned Turkey not to keep its troops in Afghanistan beyond September 2021, Ankara is pressuring the fighter group to drop its objections to these plans through its allies, Pakistan and Qatar. Turkey has also decided to directly talk to the Taliban on this matter.
As a result of all this, Turkey is in a prime position to provide security to Afghanistan's main airport in the post-US era. And Ankara has a lot to gain from taking on this crucial responsibility and thus remaining a key player in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes no secret of his desire to increase Turkey's clout in the Muslim world. Under his rule, Turkey significantly increased its influence in Muslim South Asia through media and educational projects. Turkish dramas, such as Resurrection: Ertugrul, became blockbuster hits in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, helping turn public opinion in favour of Turkey.
Moreover, in recent years, Ankara made various foreign policy moves aimed at sidelining Saudi Arabia and positioning Turkey as the new leader of the Sunni Muslim world. It actively participated in regional conflicts, such as the Syrian war, against Saudi Arabia and its allies, and has been vocal in its criticism of Riyadh on various issues, from the Qatar blockade to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Turkish efforts to maintain a continued presence in post-US Afghanistan by becoming the gatekeeper of the Kabul airport are in part an extension of these geopolitical ambitions. By insisting on assuming a major role in post-US Afghanistan, Erdogan wants not only to challenge Saudi Arabia's leadership of the Sunni-Muslim world but also demonstrate Turkey's soft power capabilities to the wider international community.
Maintaining an active role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal would also help Turkey achieve its ambitions of increasing its importance within NATO and repairing its strained relationship with the US. In July 2019, Ankara acquired S-400 missiles from Russia, which were originally built to target NATO hardware. The purchase strained Turkey's relations with other NATO members, who considered the move a threat to their security. The US eventually imposed sanctions on Turkey to express its displeasure. US support for Kurdish forces in Syria, and Turkey's operations against these groups, as well as the US' refusal to hand over the preacher Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan, also strained the relationship between Ankara and Washington.
By volunteering to provide security to the Kabul airport and thus ensuring that NATO maintains a presence in the country after the US's exit, Turkey is hoping to ameliorate its relations with Washington. By projecting itself as an important player in Afghanistan, Turkey is also hoping to enhance its position and prestige in NATO. Lately, Turkey has come under scrutiny from its NATO allies for its interventionist policies in Libya, Iraq and Syria. In retrospect, Turkey's presence in Afghanistan after the NATO troops' withdrawal in 2014 has helped it increase its importance in the alliance through NATO's Resolute Support training mission. Thus, Turkey is likely hoping to achieve similar results by remaining in the country after the completion of the US's withdrawal.
Moreover, the Kabul airport will continue to have strategic importance for NATO countries that want to maintain a diplomatic presence there in the coming months and years. Ensuring the security of the airport will undoubtedly help Turkey gain prestige in the eyes of these countries.
Turkey and the US are still negotiating, and no final decision has been made as to who will be tasked with securing the Kabul airport after the US withdrawal. Washington seems interested in Turkey's offer, but so far did not agree to meet Turkey's conditions, including financial, logistical and diplomatic support. Meanwhile, the Taliban is rapidly gaining territory, and Iran and Russia have already hosted the delegations of the Taliban and the Afghan government in an effort to revive the stalled peace talks. If Turkey really wants this role, then time is of the essence.