Turkey’s Dance with the Taliban

July 26, 2021

Turkey’s “offer” to remain at the Kabul airport beyond US and other nations’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has become another controversial foreign policy topic. Like the rest of our foreign and security policy issues, this too has immediately turned into another “riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, to use Winston Churchill’s words referring to Soviet policies in 1939. Because Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) government keeps the public in the dark about its “intricate” foreign policy schemes.

To start with, nobody knows for sure whether this was Ankara’s offer or Washington’s suggestion. But the general impression is that this was an offer by the Turkish government to cajole Washington into a more understanding attitude on Turkish-American differences by putting Turkish troops in harm’s way.

Immediate questions raised by the offer were the following:

  • Would Turkish troops fight the Taliban in case of an assault on the city?
  • Would Turkish troops remain in Kabul to ensure the orderly operation of the airport?
  • Would they remain there to secure the safe and timely evacuation of diplomatic missions remaining in Kabul in case of a battle for the capital’s control?

It must have been obvious to everyone that Turkish troops would not engage in combat with the Taliban. It is also impossible to respond to the second and third questions in the affirmative. Because if the “well-equipped and well-trained Afghan army of 300,00”, to use President Biden’s words, is unable to defend the capital against the Taliban, operate its capital’s airport after two decades of investment and organize an orderly evacuation, then this is a lost cause.

Unfortunately, the negotiations between Ankara and Washington to strike a deal with the Afghan government and the Taliban show that there is scant confidence in the former to perform any one of the foregoing. In this case, the maximum Turkish troops can possibly do would be to operate the airport, and in case of a Taliban onslaught towards the capital, ensure an orderly evacuation and board the last flight.

Would this Turkish troops in harm’s way? Yes, definitely. Because the Taliban does not have to take over Kabul to  disrupt the functioning of the airport. It has many other means at its disposal. Some would say, being in harm’s way is part of military service.

President Erdogan has listed three conditions for remaining at Kabul airport: diplomatic, logistic, and financial US support. Perhaps these should be read in reverse order. Because the Turkish economy is in dire straits and the operation of an airport in a country at war is a costly business. Moreover, this makes sense in terms of burden-sharing. Logistic support is also essential for obvious reasons. US diplomatic support for additional  financial and logistic contributions by other nations might  help, but it may not mean much in reaching an understanding with the Taliban.

Had the plan been leaving a multinational NATO force in Kabul, burden-sharing would have made sense. But in the case of a single country deployment, this becomes paying money for a risky job.

Thus, President Erdogan extended a hand to the Taliban by saying that the group can hold talks much more comfortably with Turkey, a Moslem country. He  stressed that Turkey has stood by Afghanistan when imperial powers were there for decades, including the past twenty years.

In the light of the foregoing, one may think that the JDP leadership has two objectives in Afghanistan. First, indebting Washington by remaining at the Kabul airport after all the departure of allied forces. Second, launching an initiative to bring Kabul and the Taliban closer, in a way which befits its grandiose but fruitless Hamidian foreign policy. And since the Kabul government is now cornered, Ankara put the emphasis on building bridges to the Taliban. It banked on common faith. Perhaps it believes that, during a time when many worry about the future of Afghan women, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention could ring a bell with the Taliban. Thus, the government ignored the negative repercussions of a cozy potential relationship with this murderous, head cutting group.

This is what  Reuters reported last Friday:

“One-third of the Afghan Air Force’s aircraft are inoperable and it has run out of U.S.-made precision-guided rockets amid a massive drop in U.S.-led airstrikes, hampering Kabul’s efforts to halt Taliban advances, Afghan lawmakers said on Friday…

“We need more support for the AF (Afghan Air Force),” Haji Ajmal Rahmani, the Afghan parliament majority whip and son of the lower house speaker, told a webinar sponsored by the State Department Correspondents Association.

“One-third of the fleet of about 160 aircraft is inoperable because of a spare parts shortage or the departure of Pentagon maintenance contractors, he said.

“Mir Haidar Afzali, the parliamentary defense committee chairman, said the Taliban have shot down some Russian-made helicopters.

“Other aircraft, he said, have reached their lifespan limits, and the Taliban have assassinated more than 10 Afghan pilots…”[i]

Also last Friday, the Special Representatives and Special Envoys of the United States of America, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, NATO, Norway, and the United Kingdom met in Rome to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and issued a communique which said that they “particularly appreciated Turkey’s readiness and commitment to assist with airport security as needed”.[ii]

And again, on Friday, the UN Security Council Presidential Statement condemned the 20 July announcement by Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaders on the further reopening of a part of the fenced-off Varosha area in Cyprus.

Some may call last Friday’s developments in Rome and New York “transactional diplomacy among allies”. Others may look at them as evidence of West’s new “stick and carrot policy” towards Ankara. But if leaving troops at Kabul airport is a “carrot”,  why then no other country is grabbing it? Because it is a rotten carrot. It is a trap. The JDP government must not sleepwalk into it.

Sadly, all of this only shows that the Turkey’s global popularity is at an all-time low and its “precious loneliness” at its peak.

The war in Afghanistan has proved a dismal failure for Washington. Europe is now worried only about new waves of refugees. Moscow and Peking are on the one hand delighted with this failure, but on the other hand worried about what this might portend for the region. What is certain is that they will not sit on the fence and may soon prove more formidable adversaries for the Taliban than the West. If the Taliban does behave at all, punishment will be severe. And Pakistan must think about its support to the Taliban. If not, countries including Turkey should take a fresh look at their relations with Islamabad.

Last week, the Taliban made it clear that while they look forward to cooperating with Turkey in the future, they will not tolerate any foreign presence on Afghan soil after the “withdrawal”. Hopefully, this marks the end of Turkish government’s “all in, all out, we stay” project.

On Saturday, two more Turkish soldiers were killed, and two were wounded in Syria. The Ministry of Defense and political leaders offered condolences to their families. That was the end of it. Turkey’s political leaders must grieve their loss and think more than twice before jumping into new misguided adventures beyond our borders.

Today, the most immediate problem for Turkey is not securing the Kabul airport but reaching an understanding with Tehran on measures to prevent waves of Afghan nationals from coming to Turkey through Iran. Turkey is already home to more than 5,000,000 Syrian and thousands of Afghan refugees already.

Whether this is a worry for the JDP government is hard to tell. Perhaps, new waves of our brothers in faith would again be welcomed with open arms as additional troops for Turkey’s relentless Islamic transformation.


[i] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghan-air-force-hurt-by-inoperable-aircraft-afghan-lawmakers-2021-07-23/

[ii] https://www.state.gov/u-s-europe-communique-on-afghanistan-and-peace-efforts/

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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