Turkish-Russian dialogue to add Afghanistan
One of the most solid results of the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and United States President Joe Biden was the agreement on Turkey’s mission to ensure the continuation of the secure operation of the international airport in Afghanistan’s capital following the complete withdrawal of NATO troops.
Turkey has three motives: Turkey and Afghanistan have historical bonds dating back to the former’s Independence War. In addition to the logistical and financial support, many Afghans fought alongside Turks against the occupying forces between 1919 and 1922. Keeping the airport open and providing interrupted air transportation from and to Afghanistan is very important for this country and for those who want to continue to engage with it in the new period. This will allow the continuation of the diplomatic presence in Kabul as well.
Secondly, operating an airport in the middle of central Asia is believed to increase Turkey’s influence in the region at a moment when other key regional powers like China, Russia and Iran were all looking into new opportunities following the departure of NATO. Turkey has been in Afghanistan since 9/11 but has never carried out a combatant role which allowed it to develop a better dialogue with all the Afghan groups.
Thanks to this, Turkey was nominated and approved as the host of a future peace conference between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The realization of the Istanbul Conference with the ultimate objective of signing a permanent deal between the two sides will surely make Turkey’s engagement much easier.
Plus, Turkey’s initiative of a trilateral mechanism of Turkey-Pakistan-Afghanistan is one of the mediation avenues for the two neighboring countries with many problems. Thirdly, Turkey’s offer will help better its image in the West, particularly among the NATO members as it has been the subject of criticisms for not acting in the spirit of the alliance. It will also create a new ground on which Turkey and the U.S. can develop a new approach.
There are, however, important questions and risks. The most important one is the fact that Taliban has rejected the idea. But both Turkish and some foreign diplomats recalled that the safe functioning of the airport will also serve to Taliban and, at the end of the day, they would not be categorically against Turkey’s mission.
Still, this requires an agreement between Turkey and the Afghan groups as Ankara would like to be sure that there will be no security threats against its presence in the capital. Currently, Turkey has around 500 non-combat troops. NATO will sponsor the Turkish mission there, but it should also ready contingency plans.
Another risk is how other countries in the region will react to Turkey’s presence in the country. According to the reports, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova declared that Moscow is against the idea that Turkey controls the airport in Kabul. Also, Turkey’s proposal to cooperate with Pakistan in the operation of the key airport could infuriate Russia, India and others in the region.
The past week was diplomatically very busy and productive. Both Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin separately held key meetings with Biden. It is perhaps time for Erdoğan and Putin to come together to discuss the regional developments and their cooperation in the changing nature of international affairs.
Already in close dialogue over Libya, Syria and the Caucasus, it seems they will have to add Afghanistan to this long list.