Why the US withdrawal from Afghanistan signals a unique opportunity for Turkey

A woman and a girl walk past a mural depicting an Afghan National Army soldier, in Kabul on June 10, 2021
8 min read
05 July, 2021

After two decades of a continuous military presence in Afghanistan, the US is gradually pulling its forces out of the country, seeking a full withdrawal by the end of the year.

The withdrawal plan has diminished the possibility of fruitful peace negotiations and has already given momentum to the expansion of territory by the Taliban, who have taken control of several districts across the country.

In this fragile context, Turkey is aiming to exploit current regional dynamics and leverage its international position by seeking a key role in post-US Afghanistan.

"Turkey has offered to guard and run the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul, the main exit route for western diplomats and humanitarian workers"

As the US moves out, an opportunity arises for Ankara

The deployment of US troops in Afghanistan has traditionally been a point of political friction in Washington DC.

The steady withdrawal of troops during Barack Obama’s second term started shortly after numbers reached a peak in 2011, with more than 100,000 troops stationed in the country.

By 2016, this number had fallen dramatically to just under 10,000 personnel and the Trump administration fast-tracked the process even further, reducing the number of troops to 2,500 by the time President Joe Biden assumed office earlier this year.

Now, the Biden administration is aiming to withdraw all US forces from the country by the symbolic date of 9/11, exactly twenty years after the al-Qaeda attacks on America.

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US soldiers board an Army Chinook transport helicopter on 27 October 2008 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. [Getty]

From that point onwards, responsibility for internal security and defence in the country will be based solely upon the capabilities of the Afghan forces and the limited presence of private security contractors.

The re-emergence and expansion of the Taliban in the rural areas of Afghanistan, and their increasing tactical gains as they are move towards Kabul, indicate that the current and planned security measures are inefficient.

This raises the stakes of another massive cycle of violence which could lead to a civil war, with unpredictable spillover effects across the region.

In recent months, Turkey has been seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan. Ankara has made serious efforts to boost and coordinate the peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including organising a much-anticipated Afghan peace conference in Istanbul in April which was subsequently postponed.

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More recently, Turkey has offered to guard and run the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul, the main exit route for western diplomats and humanitarian workers.

The presence of Turkish forces would maintain a NATO footprint in the country, secure critical infrastructure, and possibly prevent the escalation of a nationwide conflict, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying in June that Turkey would be the "only reliable" country left to stabilise Afghanistan.

Turkey’s proposal comes at a time when relations with the US have been tested by the long-lasting dispute over the Russian S-400 missile system purchased by Ankara.

As such, the offer is a way to boost US-Turkish ties and enhance Turkey’s standing within NATO.

"Turkey is trying, through this move, to emerge as a unifying core element of a system of countries in Central Asia"

Turkey's role as a kingmaker

Ankara has pursued an aggressive foreign policy over the past decade while at the same time remaining an important actor within NATO, a Western bloc, meaning it could bridge the differences between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

This perception of Turkey as a reliable partner for both sides grants a status which could have never been achieved by the US or another NATO power under any circumstances.

Concurrently, Ankara could also use its special relationship with Pakistan to optimise the regional context and create the desired conditions for a productive bilateral dialogue.

Considering that the Taliban’s capabilities, at every level, are heavily reliant on facilitation from Pakistan’s territory, Islamabad could turn from a possibly subversive element to a guarantor of security, which would be fundamental for the peace progress and long-term stability in Afghanistan.

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A member of the Afghan security forces walks past a wall mural in Kabul on 31 July 2020. [Getty]

Kabul-based founder and director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, Enayat Najafizada , stated in a  recent interview that Turkey could encourage all political actors in Afghanistan to work together and find common ground towards peace and reconciliation.

By acting as a mediator between the government and the Taliban, Ankara could show that a political solution is much more feasible than a military one, if not the only viable course.

The significance of Kabul airport

Although the Turkish Defence Minister, Hulusi Akar, recently stated that Turkey was not planning to deploy more personnel to Afghanistan – there are approximately 500 troops already stationed in the country - negotiations are still underway and the next steps have not yet been confirmed.

One of the main duties which Turkish forces could undertake after any potential military reinforcement would be the security of the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul. The strategic significance of the airport is crucial due to the presence of Western missions and embassies, which would remain operational after the withdrawal of NATO forces.

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Control over critical infrastructure, and especially an airport, secures a particular strategic depth for the military forces which control it. The Kabul airport not only serves commercial and civilian flights but also facilitates the operations of military aviation.

Whoever controls the airport obtains a vital strategic advantage in a potential civil conflict, and if the Taliban overruns it the Afghan government could find itself in a grim position.

In this context, Ankara will keep pushing to obtain as much logistical and financial support from NATO allies by stressing the importance of Kabul airport’s security. This situation could also be utilised in terms of Erdogan’s bid for leverage with the US.

At the same time, Turkey is seeking to use some of its international ties to create a Turkish-led, quasi-multinational force for the protection of the airport.

Erdogan has recently stated that Pakistani and Hungarian forces could be deployed to work under Ankara’s military umbrella for the protection of airport facilities. Such a proposal has significant geopolitical implications, further to the obvious operational rationale.

A potential deployment of Pakistani forces would strengthen and formalise Ankara and Islamabad's cooperation in Afghanistan. Pakistan could provide vital intelligence support in the area, and work as a balancing factor between the Taliban and the government.

"Turkey's proposal comes at a time when relations with the US have been tested by long-lasting disputes"

An Islamic coalition, which Erdogan strives to achieve, could limit the possibilities for an insurgent attack and strengthen Turkey’s regional influence and role.

With regards to Hungary, the background political objectives probably overshadow the operational ones. Budapest has deployed units in Afghanistan and has close ties with the US in this respect, while Hungarian personnel have been directly involved in the security of the airport in the past.

Most importantly though, Erdogan is looking at the political leverage he could achieve with a potential partnership with Hungary.

The hardliner Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán, has frequently been at odds with the European Union (EU), mostly over human rights issues and migration policies, and the Turkish president sees Budapest as a useful ally in a potential showdown between Turkey and the EU.

The two countries have, for example, aligned in the past over proposed strategies to cope with the European refugee crisis.

A view from the site after at least 80 people, mostly schoolgirls, were killed in three back-to-back blasts targeting a school in Kabul on 8 May 2021. [Getty]

Turkish strategic objectives find common ground with the US

To summarise Turkey’s strategy in Afghanistan, one could say that Ankara is seeking to expand its influence in Central Asia and further strengthen its position as a significant regional power.

Ankara’s gradual expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean, its military involvement in Libya, a long intervention in Syria, and the decisive engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have all set the foundation for significant influence spanning from Eastern Libya all the way to the Caucasus.

With its latest proposals in Afghanistan, Ankara seems to be aiming to consolidate a bow of power running through the aforementioned areas and continuing through Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, and potentially Pakistan.

"Although negotiations are still taking place and Turkey is awaiting a decision from the US and NATO, Ankara seems willing to take the risks associated with an expanded presence in Kabul"

This ambitious strategy not only favours Erdogan’s plans in the region but also seems to complement US priorities, especially if the Turkish presence is perceived as a hinderance to the expansion of other powers in the region, namely Russia and Iran.

“Turkey is trying, through this move, to emerge as a unifying core element of a system of countries in Central Asia, which would function as some sort of ‘interim world’, a buffer zone between the Euro-Atlantic West and the wider Eurasian bloc,” Dr Konstantinos Grivas, Professor of geopolitics at the Hellenic Military Academy and the Department of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the National University of Athens, told The New Arab.

“This is certainly a venturesome action, considering that Afghanistan has been historically a very dangerous country for all the foreign powers which tried to intervene and operate in it,” he added.

Although negotiations are still taking place and Turkey is awaiting a decision from the US and NATO, Ankara seems willing to take the risks associated with its expanded presence in Kabul. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will play out in Turkey’s favour in the long term.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris