SRINAGAR: As the US-led NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan, the key issue remains – how to secure the Hamid Karzai Airport at Kabul.
A consensus within NATO has emerged that Turkish troops should stay back and secure the airport to which NATO would continue funding. After meeting US President Joe Biden in Brussels, on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to the idea. But the affirmation had riders.
“If they don’t want us to leave Afghanistan, if they want [Turkish] support there, then the diplomatic, logistic, and financial support that the United States will give us will [be] of great importance,” Erdogan told reporters after his meeting with NATO leaders. “We can continue talking with the Taliban.”
Besides, Turkey is seeking Pakistan and Hungary’s involvement in the new mission in Afghanistan following the departure of the NATO forces.
A continued Turkish military presence in Kabul is seen as essential for maintaining access to the country and keeping embassies in the Afghan capital open. Before taking off for Brussels, Erdogan flaunted his country’s “reliability” and capability in “safeguarding US and European interests in Kabul” post-withdrawal. “America is preparing to leave Afghanistan soon and from the moment they leave, the only reliable country to maintain the process over there is obviously Turkey,” AFP quoted Erdogan saying.
Turkish TRT World channel reported that Ankara has offered to guard the airport amid concerns over the security along major transport routes and at the airport, which is the main gateway to Kabul. Turkey currently has some 500 soldiers in the war-torn country. They are there for the last 20 years but are not part of the combat missions. They train the host security forces, instead.
However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the coalition has not decided during a leaders’ summit on who would run Kabul’s international airport after the troops’ withdrawal. “Recognizing its importance to an enduring diplomatic and international presence, as well as to Afghanistan’s connectivity with the world, NATO will provide transitional funding to ensure the continued functioning of Hamid Karzai International Airport,” Stoltenberg said in the summit statement.
Upon entering the meeting with Erdogan, a journalist asked a question on a possible agreement on Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan, to which Biden replied: “We’ve had long discussions and feel very good about the meeting with the Turkish president.”
If the Erdogan proposal is approved, it would mean two Muslim countries – one pro-US and another pro-China holding guard at the main gate of Kabul.
But the idea is not acceptable to Taliban. After Ankara mooted the proposal last week, the Taliban quickly rejected it. A Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Turkey should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the 2020 deal for the pullout of US forces.
The development raises serious questions for the United States, other countries and international organisations with missions in Kabul about how to securely evacuate their personnel from landlocked Afghanistan should fighting threaten the capital. Australia that was facing embarrassing situation over the doings of its troops has already closed its embassy.
“Turkey was part of NATO forces in the past 20 years, so as such, they should withdraw from Afghanistan on the basis of the Agreement we signed with the US on 29th Feb 2020,” Suhail Shaheen told Reuters. “Otherwise, Turkey is a great Islamic country. Afghanistan has had historical relations with it. We hope to have close and good relations with them as a new Islamic government is established in the country in future.” Under the agreement, the NATO troops have to leave by September 11, 2021.
Turkish officials have told media that they mooted the Kabul airport proposal at a NATO meeting in May when the United States and its partners agreed to a plan to withdraw their forces by September 11 after 20 years of backing the Afghan government in a war against the Taliban.
US says it has moved out half of its deployments already.