Enthusiasm for Kabul airport mission betrays Turkey’s strategic ambitions in Central Asia

Ankara bets on advanced ties with Pakistan and Qatar to mollify the position of the Taliban.
Friday 09/07/2021
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, in Antalya,Turkey, June 18, 2021. (AP)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, in Antalya,Turkey, June 18, 2021. (AP)

ANKARA – Turkey is not hiding its enthusiasm for maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to protect Kabul Airport.

Analysts think the Turkish willingness to take on the role reflects its desire to use the departure of US and Western forces as a springboard to achieve Ankara’s strategic ambitions in Central Asia. It hopes to expand its influence through a military, economic and cultural presence that tries to revive the common historical roots that bind it to some of the peoples of the region.

Some analysts say that Ankara is tempted to play a larger role on the ground after the departure of the Western forces from the region but has not fully thought out the consequences, especially since it will be undertaking a defensive mission at Kabul Airport.

It is therefore likely that its first goal is to position itself as a pivotal player on the Afghan scene, especially one that it is close geographically to the region and aims to succeed where Western powers have failed.

Turkish government officials said that Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and US Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin held a “constructive and positive meeting”, Wednesday, to discuss a plan developed by Turkey to manage and guard Kabul airport after the complete withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.

The talks focused on the financial, political and logistical support. Securing the airport is essential to the movement of diplomatic missions in and out of Afghanistan after NATO’s withdrawal.

The Pentagon said that Austin and Akar discussed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and “reaffirmed the importance of providing adequate security” at the airport. It added that they agreed to speak again in the near future.

Observers believe that Ankara knows very well that it will not be militarily any more capable than the United States or the Soviet Union, which, after years of war, were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. They expect Ankara’s strategy will not rely solely on military muscle.

To secure its presence at Kabul airport Ankara is expected to use relations with countries such as Pakistan and Qatar which have strong connections inside Afghanistan, in order to maintain solid channels to the Taliban and bring them into the trilateral alliance Ankara is trying to build there.

Andrei Isef, an expert in Turkish affairs, asserted in Modern Diplomacy that the Turkish president’s ambitions would not be limited to just securing the airport.

Turkey sees Central Asia as a focal point for its attention and has diversified its activities and meetings in the region. Its most recent step was the “Islamabad Declaration” signed by the foreign minister of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Azerbaijan’s chief diplomat Jehon Bermov last January in the Pakistani capital.

The tripartite declaration included deepening cooperation in defence and security, joint exercises, capacity building and the exchange of new technologies.

Relations of trust between Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan pave the way for military and political cooperation in Afghanistan, especially since Ankara wants Islamabad to play an active role alongside Turkey in the mission of guarding Kabul Airport.

A file picture shwos travellers arrive at the domestic terminal of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (AP)
A file picture shwos travellers arrive at the domestic terminal of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (AP)

Including the Taliban in this alliance, in the light of the militant group’s strong ties with Pakistan, is possible. It may even help in promoting negotiations between the Taliban and current Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, in order to produce a government controlled by the Islamist movement, provided that the West is convinced, even if only nominally, that such an arrangement could finally bring peace to the country that has been mired in war for decades.

Qatar can exert pressure on the Taliban movement to accept this formula, taking advantage of the historical relations between the two sides, especially by employing the financial card as Taliban’s needs for economic support will be significant if they take over Afghanistan.

Turkey also wields an important card in Afghanistan, consisting of Turkic tribes (northern and central regions) that still speak the Turkish language and have a strong influence. These include the Uzbeks and Turkmen, who are often referred to as “outside Turks”, while the region in which they live is known as “Southern Turkistan”.

Turkey plays on the ethnic dimension, benefiting from the geographic expansion of Turkic tribes throughout history. It is working to revive this historical common bond by presenting it in a positive light through the production of historical TV series.

If the Turks succeed in imposing their security and political presence over Kabul airport, this will open the way for them to play a greater role in Afghanistan and the region. It also opens other avenues for Turkish economic and security influence.

But the task is likely to run into Iranian influence in the country and Tehran’s willingness to compete in filling the vacuum that the Westerners will leave after their withdrawal.  Iran has had already a successful experience doing exactly that in post-US Iraq.