Calculations in Kabul

Marc Pierini

After initially offering to secure and run Kabul airport, Turkey is now trying to find a role for itself after the Taliban’s sweeping vi-ctory in Afghanistan and the massive civilian and military evacuation that ended on August 30. At t-his point, however, it is n-ot clear how much Ank-ara can achieve in the co-untry and at what price.

On the margins of the NATO summit in Brussels last June, Turkey launched the idea of taking control of Kabul airport after the departure of U.S. and other NATO troops, in order to secure access to the Afghan capital. The ambitious offer was undoubtedly motivated by the need to patch up its relationship with the Biden administration and, at least in part, to offset the hugely negative consequences of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.

However daring the Turkish proposal was, and however valuable it was for the U.S. administration at the time, the idea is now off the table in its initial form, and this for a simple reason: the Taliban’s unmitigated military and political victory means they have no incentive to compromise with NATO countries. Despite the preexisting relations between the Taliban and Turkey, and despite the Turkish refusal to take a combat role in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan during the past 20 years, the Taliban consider Turkish forces to be NATO forces and will not accept that their soldiers and equipment be present in Kabul, even if it is only to secure the airport.

Politically, from now on the game is a different one. It is about the Taliban proclaiming sovereignty and taking revenge on the United States and NATO. The movement purposely announced its government on September 11 and stressed that it was fully in charge of Afghanistan, particularly its security. Going forward, the Taliban will make a point to translate this new situation into facts on the ground, especially at Kabul airport. The airport is a highly visible window on their sovereignty, in which the Taliban show off their best troops in captured U.S.-made gear, control all media activities nationally, and decide which flights can land and take off.

In this new political environment, and as a follow-up to its instrumental role in nurturing the February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, the Qatari leadership is at the center of the dialogue with the Taliban and is reaping the benefits of visibility. A vivid illustration was Qatar Airways’ operating the first international flight to Kabul on September 9 with 113 evacuees bound for Doha. On its inbound flight, the aircraft delivered humanitarian assistance. A second flight took place on September 10.

It would be illusory to expect Turkey to play more than a technical role in the operations of Kabul airport. Turkey’s air traffic experts are now part of a Qatari delegation trying to put in place the proper conditions for opening the airport to international air traffic. This is immensely complex, as it involves not only the usual technical requirements—radar and control tower operations, aircraft handling, passenger and cargo procedures, fire and rescue capabilities, and so on—but also the security guarantees that the Taliban authorities will need to provide concerning attacks against aircraft, particularly from the ground. Western governments, airlines, and their insurance companies will have stringent requirements in this regard.

Discussions are still ongoing at the time of writing. An actionable agreement that includes Afghanistan, Qatar, and Turkey on the operations of Kabul airport would be in the interest of the three parties. It would also serve the needs of the Afghan people, leaving a gateway open to humanitarian assistance, as well as of Western countries, who would be able to evacuate their citizens. By making this possible, Qatar and Turkey are rendering a service to the international community.

For Turkey, there are three reasons why playing a role in the operations at Kabul airport is desirable. First, having a visible impact on pressing issues dear to the big powers would enhance Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reputation. After disruptive Turkish moves in 2020—on the land border with Greece, in Libya, and in the Eastern Mediterranean—presenting a more cooperative attitude worthy of a mid-size power is in Turkey’s interest. It would also be consistent with the country’s desire to take a foreign policy direction that is more independent from the West.

Second, progress in Kabul would serve as part of a larger foreign policy orientation, against the backdrop of events in 2020. Turkey is aiming to reconcile with Armenia, Egypt, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as to renew dialogue with European Union institutions. None of these initiatives may lead to quick and positive results, but they are important for Erdogan’s image at home.

Third, in domestic political terms success abroad would provide a needed boost for Erdogan. The Turkish economy is in a dire state and its massive problems can no longer be hidden behind creative accounting and smart narratives. At a time when opinion polls are not showing an easy path toward Erdogan’s reelection or toward a solid parliamentary majority for the alliance between the Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, foreign policy successes could help turn things around.

In the final analysis, however, the importance of a Qatari-Turkish operation to run Kabul airport should not be overstated. Assuming that it is technically sustainable over the medium and long term and that security conditions are appropriate for resuming commercial and charter flights, Doha’s and Ankara’s involvement will not change the politics of Afghanistan in the slightest.

The Taliban’s victory is about retribution against the United States and its NATO allies, about reinstating the primacy of Islamic law (and therefore altering the roles of women, civil society organizations, and the education system), and about affirming total control over security issues and political decisions. It is therefore probable that any arrangement over Kabul airport will be confined to technical matters.

The unknown factor is whether, in agreeing and implementing an agreement on the airport, the Taliban will want to extract political concessions from Turkey and in that way maneuver Ankara into a situation in which it is at odds with NATO.

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