Kabul international airport security talks move forward in the face of growing Taliban threat

US and Turkish defence officials negotiate terms for the new scenario in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US and NATO troops
AP/RAHMAT GUL  -   Aeropuerto internacional Hamid Karzai, en Kabul, Afganistán

AP/RAHMAT GUL  -   Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan

The tug-of-war between Washington and Ankara to reach a definitive security agreement after 11 September, when US troops begin their full withdrawal from Afghanistan, continues. The growing Taliban threat is forcing the two sides to seal a minimum pact to ensure the protection of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport.

"The talks were positive and constructive," Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar acknowledged after talks with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. Akar revealed that there are certain issues "on which we have reached agreement". Negotiations on the management of the capital's airfield are therefore moving forward.

PHOTO/AP  -   El ministro de Defensa turco, Hulusi Akar
PHOTO/AP  -   Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar

US and Turkish national security officials held a series of telephone conversations last week to discuss "the safe and secure operation of Hamid Karzai International Airport", the Ottoman defence ministry said in a statement.

Minister Akar added that the initiatives put forward by Turkey have met with the approval of several members of the Atlantic organisation. "We are trying to continue the process with our Afghan brothers, NATO, the European Union and the international community," he said.

In June, Turkey offered its services to manage the capital's airfield following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. The airport, located in a strategic enclave between the Afghan presidential palace and diplomatic missions, promises to play a key role in maintaining the security of embassies and facilitating the arrival of humanitarian aid.

PHOTO/ Presidential Palace  -   El Secretario de Defensa de Estados Unidos, Lloyd Austin, durante su visita en Kabul, Afganistán, el 21 de marzo de 2021.
PHOTO/ Presidential Palace  -    US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during his visit in Kabul, Afghanistan, 21 March 2021.

Ankara and Washington agree on keeping Kabul airport operational. Otherwise, Afghanistan would lose contact with the outside world and diplomatic efforts to find a way out of the crisis would be hampered. To resolve this issue, a delegation from the State Department and the Pentagon visited the Ottoman capital this week.

Ankara is aware that the operation of the Hamid Karzai airport is crucial to a future peace agreement in Afghanistan, although the Turkish offer is part of an underlying strategy put in place by Erdoğan's government. The aim is to bring it closer to the rest of the Western powers, especially the US, in order to reinforce its growing internal weakness. 

For this reason, Ankara has opted to bury the hatchet and smooth things over with the other regional actors. Turkey does, however, require some political, financial and logistical support in order to be able to extend its regular presence in Afghanistan, as the country is going through a deep economic crisis marked by inflation and the devaluation of the Turkish lira.

REUTERS/SEDAT SUNA - Fotografia. de archivo, el presidente turco Tayyip Erdogan (R) y el entonces vicepresidente estadounidense Joe Biden conversan tras su reunión en Estambul
REUTERS/SEDAT SUNA - File photo: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R) and then US Vice President Joe Biden talk after their meeting in Istanbul.

In any case, it was not only the US that accepted the offer, but also the Afghan government itself. The latest expression of thanks came from Afghanistan's ambassador to Turkey, Amir Ramin. "Fraternal thanks to Turkey as our most trusted friend for the continuation of this important role beyond the international mission. We will extend all necessary support for the success of this mission," he tweeted.

However, the rampant Taliban presence in Afghanistan has raised alarm bells. The Afghan Civil Aviation Authority has been forced to activate an air defence system at Hamid Karzai airport in anticipation of possible Taliban shelling of government forces and facilities.

In this regard, Turkey has also been threatened by the Taliban. "Everyone is aware that all foreign forces have to withdraw from our beloved homeland in line with the Doha agreement, a decision supported by the United Nations and the international community," the group said in a statement, referring to the peace agreement signed in February 2020 with the US.

PHOTO/AP  -   Fotografia de archivo, combatientes talibanes, en el distrito de Shindand de la provincia de Herat, Afganistán
PHOTO/AP  -  File photo, Taliban fighters in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan.

"Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was present at the signing ceremony," remarked Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, appealing directly to the Turkish foreign minister. The Taliban representative also accused the Ottoman government of "extending its occupation in the name of an agreement with the United States". For the radical faction, this decision "will generate feelings of resentment and hostility in the country towards Turkish officials and damage historical, cultural and religious ties with the people of Turkey".

The ball is now in Turkey's court to reach an agreement with the Taliban. The fundamentalist group is advancing towards Kabul with the intention of expelling all foreign troops from Afghan soil. For its part, Ankara, which has NATO's second largest army, has launched a series of military operations with 500 troops in the vicinity of the airfield. 

In response to the Taliban, Minister Akar justified Turkey's presence in the country as part of a long-term mission. Ankara has been in Afghanistan for two decades in a non-combat role and as a US accompaniment. Moreover, it has only been involved in advisory, reconstruction and maintenance work, and has operated the airport for six years.

AFP/VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO - La guerra de Afganistán, iniciada tras los atentados del 11 de septiembre, se cobró la vida de decenas de miles de afganos y de unos 2.400 soldados estadounidenses, y supuso el gasto de billones de dólares en lo que se considera un proyecto fallido de construcción nacional
AFP/VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO - The war in Afghanistan, launched after the 9/11 attacks, claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and some 2,400 US troops, and involved the expenditure of trillions of dollars on what is seen as a failed nation-building project.
A Republican in Turkey

In the midst of negotiations over the management of the Kabul airfield, Joe Biden appointed a new US ambassador to Turkey to replace David Satterfield. And, against all odds, the president chose former Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake.

"With this appointment, the Biden Administration reaffirms the finest tradition of American foreign policy and diplomacy: the credo that partisan politics must stop at the water's edge. America's foreign policy can and should be bipartisan," Flake said in a statement.

The appointee joined the 'Republicans for Biden' list of more than two dozen GOP (Grand Old Party) lawmakers who publicly supported the then-Democratic nominee in the presidential race. Flake worked in the Senate and the House of Representatives, however, his distancing from the party line set by Trump made him abandon the discipline of the party.

Among his new duties will be to wrestle with the differences between Washington and Ankara on various issues, such as US support for the Kurds in Syria, Turkey's purchase of the S-400 anti-missile system from Russia, and the recent definition of "genocide" issued by Biden over the mass killings and deportations of Armenian citizens during the Ottoman Empire.