Turkey offers to manage Kabul airport after NATO troop withdrawal

Ankara is intervening in the Afghan peace process in an attempt to iron out differences with other regional players and gain relevance in the region
Aeropuerto internacional Hamid Karzai, en Kabul, Afganistán AP/RAHMAT GUL

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

Turkey has offered to manage and protect Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport after 11 September, when the US and NATO will withdraw all their troops from Afghanistan. Ankara requires political, financial and logistical support to extend its presence in the Central Asian country, according to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

Turkey's first such proposal came in May at the last NATO meeting, when it was determined that Washington and its partners would leave the country after two decades of conflict. "Following the US decision, Turkey has made an offer to guarantee the security of Kabul airport. In this framework, there are ongoing talks with NATO and the US," a Turkish official told Reuters.

El ministro de Defensa turco, Hulusi Akar PHOTO/ Arif Akdogan/Ministerio de Defensa turco vía AP
PHOTO/ Arif Akdogan/Turkish Ministry of Defence via AP-Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar

The Ottoman representatives then offered their services to "guarantee peace" in the country. "We want to be able to stay in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan people want us to", Akar said. Ankara aims to conclude a minimum agreement that guarantees Western backing at all levels. "If it is provided, we can stay at Hamid Karzai International Airport. We are waiting for their response on our conditions," Akar revealed.

While there have been preliminary contacts on the issue, Ankara is expected to receive a formal response from Washington next Monday, when the first meeting between Erdogan and Biden since the latter landed at the White House will end. The US is expected to accept the offer, but there is some scepticism towards Ankara in Washington. 

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 17 de marzo de 2011, un soldado del ejército estadounidense  AFP/PETER PARKS
AFP/PETER PARKS-In this file photo taken on March 17, 2011, a U.S. army soldier

The reasons for the rift between the two sides include Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, US support for the YPG in Syria, diverging positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, ultimately, the US prosecution of the Turkish bank Halkbank. 

Turkey's offer to manage the Afghan capital's airport is part of a strategy by Erdogan's government to bring it closer to the rest of the Western powers. In the face of domestic weakness partly caused by the economic crisis, Ankara has opted to bury the hatchet and iron out differences with other regional players, especially after being excluded from the multilateral agreement on hydrocarbon extraction in Eastern Mediterranean waters.

Ankara knows that a well-functioning Hamid Karzai airport is crucial to a future peace deal in Afghanistan. Diplomats and humanitarian aid workers arrive through the Kabul airfield. In addition, safe and steady airlift facilitates the work of development workers deployed in the country.

En esta foto de archivo, un soldado estadounidense de la 4ª División de Infantería, la Compañía Alfa, entrega un regalo a un niño afgano durante una patrulla en Khogyani, en Nangarhar AFP/ KIM JAE-HWAN
AFP/ KIM JAE-HWAN-En esta foto de archivo, un soldado estadounidense de la 4ª División de Infantería, la Compañía Alfa, entrega un regalo a un niño afgano durante una patrulla en Khogyani, en Nangarhar

For the time being, the air transport system is operating normally. Tickets can be purchased online, flights remain punctual, there are connections to several international airports and the accident rate is low. The unknown is how the infrastructure will operate after the withdrawal of US troops. In the event of a drawback, embassy staffing and visitor numbers would be significantly reduced. 

The situation in Afghanistan has not developed favourably since the US announcement. In recent weeks there has been a new wave of violence in the country, with 150 Afghan soldiers killed by the Taliban. In addition, Australia closed its embassy in Kabul in May for security reasons, and other delegations are considering doing the same.

Turkey maintains a total of 500 troops on Afghan soil as part of the NATO-supported Resolute Support Mission (RSM) contingent. Last December, the Ottoman parliament decided to extend the deployment of its troops in the Central Asian country. These troops have not been engaged in direct combat, but have been involved in training more than 12,000 local security personnel. 

Joe Biden, posa para los fotógrafos con el presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan PHOTO/ Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP
PHOTO/ Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool via AP-Joe Biden, poses for photographers with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish engagement in Afghanistan

At the same time, Turkish and Afghan delegations met on Tuesday in the Qatari capital of Doha in an effort to break the deadlock in the peace talks. The Ottoman foreign ministry's director-general for South Asia, Hakan Tekin, and Massoum Stanekzai, the Afghan government's chief negotiator on the issue, were at the forefront of the talks.

Stanekzai welcomed Turkey's "constructive" role and underlined the historical connections between the two states. The Turkish diplomat stressed Ankara's determination to support the Afghan people and its intention to back a peace process that is "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned", Anadolu Agency reported.

The Turkish delegation has previously acknowledged that peace in Afghanistan must go beyond the existing US-Taliban agreement. In this regard, Ankara proposed holding a peace conference in Istanbul in the midst of the centenary celebration of their diplomatic relations.

El ministro francés de Asuntos Exteriores y Europeos, Jean-Yves Le Drian AFP/THOMAS SAMSON
AFP/THOMAS SAMSON-The French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian
Paris and Ankara bridge the gap

French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian received his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Paris on Monday. The bilateral meeting came in the midst of Ankara's attempts to move closer to Western powers, especially France, after a long period of tension. 

Before the meeting, Çavuşoğlu tried to pave the way by assuring in January that France and Turkey have been "working on a roadmap to normalise relations". "If France is sincere, Turkey is ready to normalise ties with France as well," the minister said.  

"Turkey and France are two friendly countries and allies. And they will remain so. We must make sure that no misunderstanding comes to disturb this friendly relationship," Çavuşoğlu wrote in an opinion piece published on 6 June in the Gallic daily L'Opinion. 

Erdogan questioned the mental health of French President Emmanuel Macron six months ago. The decisions of the French government during the Islamist crisis in France were labelled as a 'hate campaign' against Islam by the Turkish president.

However, the differences between Paris and Ankara are not only limited to the Islamic issue. Divergences between the two states materialise in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Syrian war, resource extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean and the political transition in Libya.