If the Kabul airport is still operating after the departure of Western soldiers from Afghanistan, it is likely thanks to the major role played by Turkey. The airport is still operated by US, British and Turkish forces. The Taliban does not appear to have the knowledge to operate a commercial international airport.
Kabul Airport is the main gateway to Afghanistan. It is an important link with the outside world in the mountainous country, which has no access to the sea, and where road travel is unsafe. This is why it is so important that the airport remains open after all the Western military have left.
Turkey had offered to take over management of the airport in Kabul after NATO’s withdrawal, in order to support the Afghan government and maintain access for staff of Western embassies and international aid agencies. But that was before the Taliban took control of Kabul. While the movement seeks to establish good relations with Turkey, it is demanding the departure of Turkish forces as part of the deal with the United States.
“We want good relations with Turkey, the Turkish government and the Muslims of the Turkish nation,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “But we do not need the Turkish forces, and when the evacuation is complete, we will secure the airport ourselves.”
Reuters, citing unidentified Turkish officials, reported that the Taliban had asked Turkey for technical assistance in managing the airport. But Ankara is hesitant, because without troops it is a risky operation. The sources said that negotiations with the Taliban are still ongoing, in consultation with the Americans.
A US State Department spokesman said on Monday that “a functioning country, a functioning economy, and a government that has any form of relationship with the rest of the world needs a functioning commercial airport.” We are in talks with the Taliban about this. They have indicated that they want a functioning commercial airport.”
Turkey is a crucial player for us
Suhail Shaheen Taliban spokesman
When the Taliban took control of Kabul earlier this month, Turkey sent an additional 2,400 troops to Afghanistan, in addition to 600 men involved in airport security, to help with the evacuations. But due to the chaos at the airport, criticism has mounted from the Turkish opposition and from citizens who believe that the benefits of being in Kabul airport do not outweigh the risks.
Read also: 12 US soldiers and “60 Afghans” killed in Kabul attacks
The Turkish offer to run the airport after the departure of NATO initially appeared to be an attempt by President Erdogan to present himself as a good ally. But after the Taliban took over, the cards were mixed differently. The fact that Erdogan stuck to his offer shows how keen he is to maintain a foothold in Afghanistan and establish relations with the new rulers.
Erdogan relies on Turkish soft power in Afghanistan. Because of the historical friendship between the two countries, and their religious and cultural affiliation, many Afghans sympathize with Turkey. Turkey is seen as an Islamic superpower, particularly economically. What helps is that Turkish forces are not directly involved in the fighting with the Taliban.
“Turkey is a critical player for us,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said. It is a powerful and respected country in the world and has a special place for the Muslim community. Our infrastructure has collapsed. We will rebuild Afghanistan and that’s why we need Turkey so badly.”
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of August 27, 2021
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