In a recent interview with Reuters, Turkish officials announced Turkey’s readiness to occupy the Kabul airport after US troops withdraw, and to take over managing and protecting it. Turkey articulated this proposal back at a NATO meeting in May, when Washington and its allies agreed on a plan for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan.
On June 7, in an interview with the Hürriyet newspaper, Turkey’s Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, stated that “this proposal by Ankara is linked to providing for its allies, as long as political, financial, and logistical cooperation exist with the United States and NATO”. It is quite obvious that by taking this step Ankara clearly expects to improve relations, and primarily with Washington and western Europe, which are fraught with tension because of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, and disputes that are originating with European countries over drilling rights in the waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Ankara’s proposal was made at London’s suggestion, since recently there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of mutual contacts made between Britain and Turkey, including on issues related to Afghanistan.
It should also not be forgotten that by implementing this kind of proposal, Turkey, which seeks to increase its role in international affairs and its geopolitical influence, will reap additional dividends from the West, since NATO countries are seriously concerned about the situation that may develop in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul after the international coalition’s planned withdrawal of troops from the country. These concerns, in particular, during a recent meeting in Brussels to discuss security for the Kabul international airport, were voiced by Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that “this depends upon the diplomatic presence of Western countries in Afghanistan, and their role in maintaining peace in the region”.
The security vulnerabilities at Kabul airport, which has been operated by NATO’s military staff since 2002, were showcased by NATO in late September last year, when Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and Pentagon chief James Mattis arrived in Kabul on an unannounced visit, and were then subjected to rocket fire at the airport. Back then, that part of the airport from which military flights are made came under attack, and the Taliban took responsibility for the shelling (this group is banned in Russia).
Although the US government has spent about 562.2 million since 2002 on rebuilding Afghanistan’s civil aviation system, it has failed to train enough air traffic controllers for the country to independently manage the services that support Afghanistan’s airspace. For the Afghan government to now take over the process of managing the airport, it will take three or four years to train specialists and take over all the responsibilities. However, this process cannot wait, and it must be carried out within three months – before the complete withdrawal of NATO coalition troops from Afghanistan. In addition, Afghan officials say the country lacks the financial capabilities to attract private contractors to perform the necessary security-related work at Kabul airport, although the Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority asked NATO last month to transfer control of the airport’s air traffic control tower.
Under these conditions, according to the American publication The National News, the Turkish government agreed to take responsibility for the Kabul international airport as part of a deal with NATO, and even do some technical upgrading work in the amount of 130 million USD.
Ankara’s proposal has clearly elicited interest from Brussels and Washington in the hope that Turkey will be able to keep the Kabul airport under its control, and guarantee security for it, even if the Taliban burst through and come to power in this country. First, Turkey is the only Muslim NATO member that supports the alliance’s military mission in this country; however, despite deploying its troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission starting in 2003, they do not participate in any combat operations, and have not been attacked by the Taliban. In addition, Turkey has never displayed any intentions to establish control over this country, or impose its system of governance. It is chiefly involved in reforming the administrative, judicial, educational, and health systems in Afghanistan, and helping train Afghan police forces and the army, with a large group of Afghan police officers receiving training in a special center constructed by Ankara. Besides that, we must not forget that Ankara, in keeping with its tactics of consolidating its positions in other countries, is competently using soft power technologies in Afghanistan, restoring mosques and schools where they purposefully teach in the Turkish language, providing active financial assistance to pro-Turkish media outlets, and giving support to Turkish business in this country. By virtue of that, and how it holds numerous conferences on the Afghanistan issue in Turkey itself, Ankara is today a very influential player in this country’s domestic politics.
Recently established “allied relations” with Qatar could represent definitive additional support for Ankara’s actions in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US and NATO coalition forces from the country; both these countries have already been allowed to create enclaves under their control in the north and west of Afghanistan, relying on support from militants with the so-called pro-Qatar Taliban group (this movement is banned in Russia), and from an army led by General Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek.
In these conditions, it cannot be ruled out that out of all the NATO military units that are present in the country now, only Turkish units will eventually remain. They are the ones who could become something more than observers, and influence the various options for how events develop in Afghanistan, thereby increasing the role Turkey plays in these processes and its geopolitical significance – and this is something to which Turkish President Erdogan actively aspires.
Washington’s consent to Ankara’s proposal on the Kabul airport could have sweeping consequences, both for Turkey itself and for reinforcing Washington’s positions in Afghanistan, even after the withdrawal of the coalition forces. After all, this is how the United States can maintain its foothold in Afghanistan to leverage further in this region, especially since it will be under the control of Turkey, one of the members of the North Atlantic Alliance. And on top of that, taking into consideration the fact that the cultivation area for opium poppy in Afghanistan has increased by more than 20 times (up to 163,000 hectares in 2019) during the NATO troops’ time here, and that this country has turned into the source of over 80% of the world opiate market, the “Turkish option” – involving control over Afghan airspace – would permit Washington to maintain its dominant position in this very significant illicit market.
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.