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Erdogan Pushes for Turkish Role in Afghanistan after US Leaves

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says, July 20m 2021, his country will talk with the Taliban regarding Ankara's bid to operate and secure the airport in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Turkey is going ahead with its plans to take over security at the Kabul international airport after the pullout of U.S. troops, despite opposition from the Taliban. Ankara is in negotiations with Washington to secure the airport, which analysts say is key to maintaining stability and an international presence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has warned Turkey of severe consequences if its military remains in Afghanistan when other foreign forces pull out, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in remarks this week, appeared to play down those threats and indicated negotiations would continue.

Erdogan says whether, at the level of the foreign ministry or at his level, Turkey is trying to see what kind of talks it can hold with the Taliban and where these talks can take them.

Ankara is banking on its historical ties with Afghanistan and its status as NATO's only predominantly Muslim member to help ease Taliban opposition.

The 500-person Turkish force in Afghanistan has also avoided any military confrontation with the Taliban.

However, Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Affairs Institute, who has recently returned from the region, warns Ankara is overestimating its position.

“Any Turkish participation concerning the airport would be disastrous for Turkish foreign policy. Taliban, they stated they don't like Tayyip Erdogan and they don't like the Turkish military presence. Taliban is very determined to kick out all the forces there, and Turkey's presence there is definitely unwanted," said Bagci.

Turkey is continuing discussions with Washington over the airport mission. Both sides describe the talks as productive. Relations between the NATO members have been deeply strained, especially over Ankara's deepening ties with Moscow.

Ilhan Uzgel, a columnist for the Duvar news portal, said Ankara sees the Kabul airport mission as key to repairing relations with Washington.

“The most important thing is the AKP government is trying to fix the ties with the Biden administration, and they want to offer something good for them. Ankara is trying to prove that it's a very good ally; it's a precious ally and cannot be ignored," said Uzgel.

Kabul Military Airport where helicopters are parked are seen through a window of a commercial airplane, July 7, 2021.
Kabul Military Airport where helicopters are parked are seen through a window of a commercial airplane, July 7, 2021.

Turkey is looking to its close allies, Pakistan and Qatar, which some observers say have close relations with the Taliban, to overcome opposition from the group. But Bagci warns that with the Taliban believing it is on the verge of assuming power, the importance of those countries is diminishing.

“The Taliban doesn't consider Pakistan, Qatar, and Turkey as the countries "which should be on the priority list; no, they are not," said Bagci. "Politically speaking, Russia, China, Russia, and America, and maybe India to a certain extent. Taliban say, ‘we establish our state, then we negotiate.’”

With only a matter of weeks left before the pullout of American forces is complete, analyst Uzgel warns if the Taliban maintains its opposition, Ankara could find itself trapped.

“If Turkey insists on maintaining troops there, that would be risky. If Turkey concedes to the Taliban's recent statement, that would be a humiliation for Turkey,” said Uzgel.

With Ankara having little leverage over the Taliban, Uzgel suggests a last-minute collapse in U.S.-Turkish talks over the airport operation could provide a face-saving option for Ankara, but at a cost to bilateral ties.