Turkey is gearing up for a risky Afghan mission that nobody else wants
Ankara: As the US prepares to leave Afghanistan’s sprawling Bagram base after 20 years of war, NATO partner Turkey stands ready to take the lead in securing another runway – Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International, 65 kilometers (40 miles) southern.
For those looking to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan, it is crucial to throw a protective ring around the landlocked airport. These include Western powers on the lookout for new terrorist threats, China, with its now stalled interest in huge mineral deposits, and India, which Kabul wants as an important ally in the dispute with neighboring Pakistan.
But the proposed Turkish operation is being planned with few public details of the U.S. air support that would be provided if the airport were attacked by a rising Taliban, who has taken control of dozen of districts in the past few weeks, and talks on power-sharing between the militant movement and the government of President Ashraf Ghani in Qatar at a dead end.
A dangerous undertaking for Ankara, which has been guarding the busy military department of the airport for six years as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has an eye on the possible rewards. Taking on a job no one else wants would provide an opportunity to re-establish ties with Washington that had been strained by years of disputes, particularly Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system that NATO sees as a threat to its security.
“Securing the airport is a way to be nice without giving up too much,” said Jenny White, professor at Stockholm University’s Institute of Turkish Studies, on issues that really matter to the US, including missiles.
“With its aggressive policies, Turkey has lost friends on every corner,” she said. “She has to look good on the financial markets and hopes to ingratiate herself with the US and Europe.”
Turkish officials are privately acknowledging the challenges and are expected to urge a Pentagon delegation visiting this week to provide the military, logistical and financial assistance they desire. “All aspects of the issue are expected to be discussed,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement.
In direct talks with the Taliban aimed at relaunching their plan to host an Afghan peace conference, Turkey stressed earlier this month that its role is strictly limited to guarding the airport, according to those directly familiar with the matter People who could not be identified talking about sensitive conversations.
The Taliban reacted quickly: Turkish soldiers are indeed representatives of a “great Islamic nation”, are “occupiers” of Afghan territory and should leave the country just like the Americans.
“Unless there is an agreement between the Taliban and Turkey to temporarily operate Kabul Airport, this is impossible due to colossal security risks,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “The question is who will stop the Taliban from remotely firing mortar shells or missiles at the runway?”
also read: Turkey declares “#MissionAccomplished” against coronavirus
The airport has been hit by bomb attacks and rocket attacks repeatedly over the years. One of the deadliest incidents in 2018 was when then Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum was attacked in a suicide attack by the Islamic State after his return from Turkey. Dostum survived, but nearly 80 people who welcomed him were killed or injured.
Under Erdogan, Ankara embarked on a self-confident foreign policy, branded itself as a growing Sunni Muslim power and waded into regional conflicts. It urged Pakistan and Qatar to use their influence with the Taliban to get them to drop their opposition to the Turkish airport plan, the people said, and would co-opt parliament’s approval for the deployment of soldiers in Afghanistan Obtain equipment, possibly including Turkish drones for surveillance.
What is certain is that President Joe Biden will withdraw the remaining 2,500 US soldiers before the deadline on September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered the American invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban leadership. Thousands of NATO troops training and advising the Afghan armed forces will follow.
Biden will meet President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation, in Washington on Friday.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly stressed that the US will maintain its “beyond the horizon” capabilities to strike back against the Taliban if they threaten US interests and the stability of Afghanistan after US troops withdraw. But they also emphasized that the Afghan military must defend the country more strongly.
That shakes Afghanistan’s distant neighbors and US allies as warlords and civilian militias step in to counter recent Taliban advances, which raise the specter of a crumbling state.
In two interviews with Turkish media, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that “the withdrawal is happening at a fairly rapid pace, but the peace process is proceeding at a snail’s pace”.
The US should avoid catapulting Afghanistan into a time of “anarchy and civil war” such as that which led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s – comments that have raised eyebrows at the Pakistani military’s covert support for the movement since then become its beginnings.
Australia delivered the most blunt messages. Citing an increasingly unsafe security environment, it has closed its embassy in Kabul for the time being. Bloomberg
Also read: Why Turkey is trying to mend relations with its traditional Western allies
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