By Ece Uyguc*
During the latest NATO meeting on 14 June 2021 in Brussels, US President Biden and Turkey’s President Erdogan agreed Turkey would lead to protect Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Turkey would like to carry on this mission with the existence of troops from Pakistan and Hungary.
The importance of Kabul International Airport
Afghanistan is a country that not only has regional but global importance. It occupies a wide place in world politics. Hamid Karzai International Airport possesses a very strategic and crucial position in the region. Afghanistan being a mountainous region, the airport is the only path to provide connection and transportation to the outside world. Due to the inability to ensure the safety of the roads in the country, Kabul Airport is the only way to receive logistics vehicles and equipment, and aid shipments. Additionally, travels of diplomats and the dispatch of military units are made only from this airport, as it is safe.
The security of the American personnel of the US Embassy also depends on the security of this airport. Therefore, US military officials have stated their concern by stating that without a protected airport, the US Embassy complex in the capital would have to be closed and the personnel would be evacuated. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has mentioned their content with Turkey’s new position as he stated: “We are feeling good about where we are in terms of the planning with the Turks on this issue.”
NATO Mission in Afghanistan
When we look at history, Afghanistan was a country that could not be shared by the United Kingdom and Tsarist Russia. In 1979, the Soviet Union was the first to invade Afghanistan. They were defeated and withdrawn, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since September 11, 2001, 49 countries have undertaken a task under the umbrella of NATO under the name of the International Security Assistance Force, as required by America’s war against terrorism strategy. ISAF was established by the UN Security Council in December 2001 by Resolution 1386.
After the 9/11 attacks, for the first time in NATO history, Article 5, the collective defense clause of the Washington Treaty, was put into practice and the NATO troops were deployed accordingly.
Turkey was one of the first countries to deploy troops in Afghanistan along with the US. Turkey initiated this mission with 1850 soldiers, now there are over 500 soldiers. Turkey’s forces in Afghanistan have always been non-combatant troops. As of today, the US still has around 2,500 soldiers but the number reached 130,000 in 2010.
The US Troops Withdrawal from Afghanistan
According to the Taliban’s agreement with the Trump administration, all foreign armed forces were supposed to leave Afghanistan by May 1 this year. However, the Biden administration extended this period until September 11 and they declared that the withdrawal would be completed on this symbolic day.
However, some Afghan officials think that the American withdrawal from the region was a hasty decision. For example, the founder of Institute of War and Peace Studies, a Kabul-based think tank, Enayat Najafizada stated that the withdrawal of NATO troops has already developed a security void by saying, “The US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan proved to be a rushed decision without taking ground realities into consideration. The Taliban have overrun nearly 40 districts across the country in the past month. Out of 387 districts in Afghanistan, the fighting is ongoing in 116 districts in the country.”
What are the risks for Turkey being the key player in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is now at the brink of a civil war, as chaos has not come to an end. Even though the Afghan government wants Turkey to stay, the Taliban stated Turkey is a NATO member and should withdraw along with other NATO members. In the mountain-covered country, the Taliban have recently gained significant strength both on the field and politically. Due to the ongoing conflicts in the country, 130,000 Afghans have left their homes to migrate to safe places in the last three months according to the data obtained by the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Therefore, nobody can ensure that the Taliban will not advance and reach Kabul Airport in 5 years. Turkey has some requests from the US for this mission to initiate this mission safely.
Turkey’s requests from the US for this new mission
For this new mission to start, the American military delegation came to Turkey on 23 June to negotiate about the security of Kabul airport. To start this mission, Turkey requests logistical, financial, political, and troop support from the US and other NATO member states. Utilizing political support, Turkey is in needs to have a legitimization as to the international law from the UN and NATO to have troops in the region. The two countries seem to be approaching to agree according to the statement of Sullivan last week: “President Erdogan indicated he would need, … certain forms of support to do that. And President Biden committed that that support would be forthcoming.”
Turkey’s Historical Relations with Afghanistan
Placing Turkey in the leading role to guard the airport in Kabul is the right choice since the relations of Turkey and Afghanistan date back to the 1920s. Afghanistan was the first country to recognize the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on 23 April 1920. During Turkey’s war of independence in the 1920s Afghanistan provided financial aid and even Afghan students studying in Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul joined the Turkish army and fought along with the Turks. When the Republic of Turkey was declared on 29 October 1923, Afghanistan was the second country to recognize it. Also, King Gazi Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan was the only foreign dignitary to congratulate Ataturk for the signature of the Lausanne Peace Treaty in 1923. In 1928 the Afghan King visited Ataturk. Thus, Turkey always Turkey considers supporting Afghanistan’s security as a debt of loyalty.
Will Turkey succeed in Afghanistan?
Turkey will successfully defend the airport as it has been carrying on this mission for over 6 years with success. However, Turkey should not be the only country to exist in the region but partner with some NATO countries because there are many terrorist groups like ISIS, al-Qaida that may commit attacks on the airport complex. Turkey should take a legitimate role from the UN and NATO to guarantee its existence in Kabul.
According to Hikmet Cetin, NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative between 2003-2006, the crucial point for this mission is to take Taliban’s approval, and going there without their consent would generate distress. “This idea can only be implemented with the approval of the Taliban. Without this approval, it should not be implemented anyway. Because in this case, serious security risks will arise for Turkey,” he stated in an interview.
*Ece Uyguç is an economist, and a certified English-Turkish translator and opinion writer.