President Joe Biden walked into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s trap in June by agreeing to hold a one-on-one meeting without the presence of any diplomats or note takers. The American president was hoping to finalize a deal to outsource the security of the Kabul international airport to Ankara. Biden got his deal, and Erdogan got back into Washington’s good graces.
Fast forward three months: Erdogan not only withdrew Turkish troops from Afghanistan despite promising they would stay even after the fall of Kabul but is now in negotiations with the Taliban to help them secure diplomatic recognition. Erdogan also reached an agreement with the militant group to provide them technical support to operate the airport. Ankara reportedly offers this support through a dozen technicians while also hoping to provide security through a private firm. This U-turn offers a cautionary tale about outsourcing security missions to autocrats.
The Biden and Erdogan Kabul airport deal marked a significant turning point in a relationship that had gotten off to a rocky start. After taking office, Biden gave Turkey’s Islamist strongman the cold shoulder by refusing to call him for three months.
Erdogan, however, is skilled in identifying his opponents’ needs and weaknesses. He was quick to detect the growing American reluctance to maintain U.S. troops abroad as part of long-term counterterrorism missions.
In October 2019, during a phone call with former President Donald Trump, Erdogan exploited his U.S. counterpart’s neo-isolationist impulses to convince him to withdraw American forces from northeast Syria. Erdogan assured Trump that Turkish troops would deal with the remnants of the Islamic State.
Yet, during the ensuing military operation in Syria, Turkish troops and Ankara’s Islamist proxies battered Washington’s Syrian Kurdish-led partners, who had borne the brunt of ground combat against the Islamic State. The result was a power vacuum that the Russians and the Assad regime exploited to expand their presence in northeast Syria.
Hoping to replicate with Biden the kind of personal relationship he had with Trump, Erdogan launched a charm offensive following the 2020 U.S. elections but failed to make inroads during the first few months of the Biden presidency. Yet neo-isolationist impulses proved to be just as strong among Democrats as Republicans, giving Erdogan a weakness to exploit.
When Biden cornered himself by committing to a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Erdogan was poised to capitalize on Washington’s predicament, which included logistical challenges as well as the frustration of NATO allies. The Turkish president was correct to assume that, under growing pressure to outsource security responsibilities in Kabul, Biden would fall for Erdogan’s offer to guard and run the city’s international airport.
From the start, Biden should have seen the signs that Erdogan was not a good-faith negotiator and did not share his values or goals in Afghanistan or, for that matter, elsewhere. In July, the Turkish president admitted that Turkey “does not have any conflicting issues with [the Taliban’s] beliefs.” Erdogan even suggested that the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan was illegitimate from the get-go, saying, “Imperial powers entered Afghanistan; they have been there for over 20 years.” There were even reports that the Erdogan government was planning to deploy to Afghanistan some 2,000 Syrian mercenaries, whose earlier conduct prompted the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria to bring accusations of war crimes against them last September, including allegations of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape, and pillaging.
Paradoxically, the total collapse of Biden’s Afghanistan policy and the accompanying withdrawal of the Turkish troops from the war-torn country have not brought Erdogan’s leverage over Washington to an end. On the contrary, as the Biden administration has scrambled to cope with the fallout, the Turkish president has enjoyed the opportunity to pitch new deals to his U.S. and European counterparts.
These include an offer to provide technical assistance to run the Kabul airport, as well as ostensible efforts to encourage the Taliban to form an inclusive administration that upholds women’s rights — a pledge on which Erdogan should first deliver at home. But most importantly, Ankara maintains the ability to block or slow down refugee flows to the European Union, a capability it weaponized at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.
Whether the Turkish president’s renewed offers of assistance and veiled threats are serious or not, lately, he has been enjoying a steady stream of affirmative messages from his U.S. and European counterparts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who dismissed Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner” in January, stated on Sept. 3 that the U.S. is “working closely with our partners Qatar and Turkey to help get the airport in Kabul up and running as quickly as possible.”
A week earlier, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed Berlin’s gratitude to Turkey for its offer to continue to help run the airport after NATO’s withdrawal and said Germany was ready to support that effort financially and technically. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, an alliance within which Erdogan repeatedly plays a spoiler role, similarly thanked Turkey for its vital role in securing the Kabul airport during the withdrawal of NATO forces and personnel from Afghanistan.
In a world where the U.S. and its European allies are reluctant to deploy troops even to hold back adversaries such as the Taliban, there will be further temptations to outsource security challenges by undertaking questionable deals with the likes of Erdogan and other autocrats. Illiberal governments remain eager to fill the power vacuum a neo-isolationist U.S. and an inward-looking EU leave behind. This, in turn, will bolster the impunity of adversaries who know that Washington’s illiberal partners are in the game for themselves.
Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.