Turkey Turns to Taliban, But There is no More Airport Deal to Salvage

Aykan Erdemir

Turkey’s offer in June to guard and manage the international airport in the Afghan capital was a unique opportunity for Ankara to build leverage over the United States, the European Union and NATO.

However, since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan first made the offer to his US counterpart, Joe Biden, on June 7, the Taliban’s rapid ascendancy in Afghanistan has for all intents and purposes killed the Turkish leader’s plan.

Erdogan’s subsequent August 11 offer to meet Taliban leaders in Turkey was an attempt to salvage his deal with Biden, but the move has intensified the Turkish public’s vocal opposition to the Turkish president’s Afghanistan policy.

At the outset, Erdogan’s Afghanistan deal appeared to promise a high return on investment for the Turkish government. As Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on June 23, Ankara did not commit to deploying additional troops to Afghanistan besides the 500 already stationed there.

Turkey reportedly was not willing to take on any combat mission outside the airport and refused to provide security for diplomatic convoys shuttling between Kabul’s foreign missions and the airport.

Furthermore, Erdogan demanded “diplomatic, logistic and financial” assistance from Washington. In exchange, the Turkish president hoped that he would extract more favorable treatment from the Biden administration, which had given him the cold shoulder during its first five months in office and called out Ankara’s human rights violations at home and it destabilizing foreign and security policy abroad.

Taliban not on board

On June 10, four days before Erdogan negotiated the Afghanistan deal with Biden, a Taliban spokesperson insisted that Turkey should withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan, arguing that such a step would be consistent with the terms of the February 2020 agreement between Washington and the Taliban for the pullout of US forces.

Last month, the Taliban went as far as to issue a warning that it would view Turkish forces as occupiers and wage “jihad” against them.

Ankara’s response to the Taliban’s threats ranged from downplaying their seriousness to searching for palliative fixes. A Turkish official dismissed the militant group’s threat of waging jihad, saying Ankara did not expect the Taliban to have a “hostile attitude.” Erdogan told reporters on July 20 that the Taliban should be comfortable holding talks with Ankara, since “Turkey doesn’t have anything that contradicts their beliefs.”

To ease tensions, the Turkish government reached out to Qatar and Pakistan, which share not only ideological affinities with Turkey’s Islamist government but also close relations with the Taliban. Ankara also turned to Hungary to seek collaboration in securing the Kabul airport.

Meanwhile, facing growing security risks in Kabul, Ankara reportedly began hedging its bets by making preparations to deploy some 2,000 Syrian mercenaries to Afghanistan, as it did for earlier military campaigns in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

But while a US leaked intelligence assessment on August 11 warned that the Taliban could isolate Kabul within 30 days, the Afghan capital and much of the rest of the country had fallen by August 15.

The day the US intelligence assessment was reported, senior Turkish officials told Reuters that Ankara still intended to run and guard the Kabul airport, which days later was the scene of chaos as frightened Afghans tried to flee. “Work is continuing on the basis that the transfer will happen, but of course the situation in Afghanistan is being followed closely,” one source was quoted as saying.

On August 12, during a visit to Pakistan, Turkey’s Akar said that since the existing diplomatic missions in Afghanistan would completely withdraw if the airport closed, “we continue to share our view that the airport should remain open. In the coming days, this issue will take shape.”

Pressure building at home

The Turkish government’s Afghanistan plans rest neither on any informed deliberations in the Turkish parliament nor on any public consensus. Erdogan’s unilateralism, which also characterized his earlier military action in Syria and Libya, is made possible by the lack of any meaningful checks and balances in the country or oversight by parliament, independent media outlets or civil society organizations.

The ability to deploy troops rapidly and continue with overseas missions despite mounting Turkish casualties, a flexibility Ankara’s NATO counterparts do not have, has until now given the Erdogan government a unique bargaining power in bilateral and multilateral relations.

Although Turkey’s checks and balances continue to erode at an alarming rate, the collapse of the Afghan government, the spike in the number of displaced Afghans taking refuge in Turkey, and the alarming rise in anti-refugee sentiment across the Turkish political spectrum, including among the ruling bloc’s support base, have nevertheless practically blocked the Turkish president’s ability to move forward with his Afghanistan deal.

On August 3, in a series of tweets, Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, criticised a US recommendation for Afghans escaping the Taliban’s reprisal attacks to seek refuge in third countries.

“As a member of the alliance that will govern Turkey in the future, we do not accept those deals that you made with Erdogan,” he warned in a tweet directed at the US. “Whatever you have said or relayed to Erdogan are binding only for him, not for the Republic of Turkey.” The next day, amid a growing public outcry, Erdogan’s communications director reacted to Washington by announcing that Turkey “does not, and will not, serve as any country’s waiting room.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s statement that Turkey “doesn’t have anything that contradicts” the Taliban’s beliefs and his plans to meet with Taliban leaders in Turkey continue to draw negative reactions from the country’s pro-secular figures. Numerous members of the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, CHP, slammed Erdogan for suggesting that Turkey and the Taliban share the same values, with a CHP deputy chair criticising the Turkish president for associating Turkey with militant Islamist groups, including “the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and the Taliban.”

Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington between 2010 and 2014 joined elected officials in warning against hosting the Taliban. He criticised the Turkish government for denouncing the United States for cooperating in its fight against the Islamic State with the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Forces, YPG – which Ankara considers as a terrorist entity – while also “stating that you will meet with the Taliban that everyone sees as terrorists.”

Bumpy road ahead

Back in June, Erdogan regarded his Afghanistan deal with Biden as a unique opportunity to build leverage over the United States and other NATO allies. Such a deal, Erdogan hoped, would resemble his earlier set of deals with the European Union to host displaced Syrians and prevent them from continuing their journey to the West.  Those deals have succeeded in watering down Brussels’ punitive rhetoric and action toward Ankara.

The developments of the last two months have shown that Erdogan’s Afghanistan deal with the US, as many analysts warned, have proven much trickier than his Syrian refugee deal with the EU.

Although Washington appeared to mute its criticism of Turkish domestic, foreign, and security policy transgressions in June and July, the Biden administration has emerged from its silence as of August.

This is yet another reminder that there are no quick fixes to US-Turkish relations, which have been on collision course over a broad range of issues. With the Afghanistan deal all but dead, it would be wise for Ankara to engage Washington in good faith to negotiate outstanding issues rather than hoping to sweep them under an Afghan rug that no longer exists.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.

Courtesy: (FDD)