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Afghanistan: Why Turkey wants to partner with Hungary to protect Kabul airport

Ankara believes Hungarian military is an asset because it knows the airport well, while Orban seeks more influence within Nato
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pose for cameras before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a Nato summit in Brussels on 13 June (Handout)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara and Levent Kemal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week publicly floated the idea that Ankara could partner with Hungary and Pakistan to secure Kabul International Airport after Nato’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The airport is key to the stability of the Afghan capital, as foreign missions, NGOs and aid groups rely on its services.

For many, Pakistan sounded like a reasonable partner. Islamabad has a longstanding relationship with the Taliban, as a neighbouring country. But Hungary came as a big surprise.

'Orban proposed to deploy Hungarian soldiers to the airport in a Turkish-led mission. He would like to show the alliance that Hungary is an important partner that can deliver results'

- Source

Two sources familiar with the issue said Hungary itself expressed a willingness to take part in the mission, floating the idea in a meeting between Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Miniser Viktor Orban on the sidelines of a Nato summit earlier this month.

“Orban proposed to deploy Hungarian soldiers to the airport in a Turkish-led mission,” one person familiar with the meeting told Middle East Eye. “Orban would like to show the alliance that Hungary is an important partner that can deliver results.”

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Orban has increasingly been criticised by EU and Nato countries over his authoritarian policies, which sources said had spurred him to move closer to Turkey.

“He is increasingly feeling sidelined. His future after the elections next year is also at stake,” the second source said.

Previous experience

Turkish officials, on the other hand, believe Hungary could be a good addition to the mission from a technical point of view. Officials in Ankara point out that Hungary already has experience securing Kabul airport from its participation in the mission between 2010 and 2013. Since then it has undertaken occasional other missions at the facility, too.

“Hungary is a logical choice because they are well aware of the security weaknesses of the airport. They know the terrain well,” one Turkish official told MEE. “There are also longstanding defence ties between Turkey and Hungary, making it easier for us to work with them. “

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A spokesperson for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade avoided responding to direct questions on Hungary's possible role in the protection of Kabul airport.

However, the spokesperson tied the issue to the security of Europe and migration.

“The most serious of these is the risk of further waves of migration, due to the rise of terrorism,” the spokesperson told MEE. “The threat of terrorism and the emergence of migratory waves has to be prevented.”

The spokesperson, without elaborating, said necessary steps are currently being negotiated, but no decision has been taken.

Hungary, which has previously had around 150 troops deployed in Afghanistan, currently has only nine soldiers in the country, according to a statement by the country’s foreign minister in April.

Orban, known for his anti-refugee stance, specifically towards those from Muslim countries, last year increased its military budget by 30 percent to 2.2bn euros ($2.6bn) to purchase helicopters, battle tanks and missile defence systems. He also announced a military modernisation campaign worth billions of euros to be pursued over the next decade.

Close to a deal

No formal deal has been reached by Ankara and Nato over Turkey taking responsibility for Kabul airport's security. However remarks by both Erdogan and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan indicated that the two countries were close to striking an agreement.

“President Erdogan indicated he would need, as you said, certain forms of support to do that. And President Biden committed that that support would be forthcoming,” Sullivan said last week during a briefing. “President Erdogan expressed satisfaction with that, and the two of them tasked their teams just to work out the final details.”

A Nato communique promised to maintain the funding for the airport earlier this month, meeting a Turkish condition, but Ankara is also seeking logistical support, such as the deployment of drones, defensive equipment and troops from other allied countries.

'Turkey always had a historic and friendly relationship with Afghanistan. Yet in return, Ankara wants solid concessions from Washington, including on the issue of S-400s'

- Washington source

A Washington source told MEE that Erdogan had been hoping for favours from the US in return for taking on the Kabul mission.

“It is true that Turkey always had a historic and friendly relationship with Afghanistan,” the source said. “Yet in return, Ankara wants solid concessions from Washington, including on the issue of S-400s.”

Turkey's purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems has caused consternation in Washington, and prompted sanctions on Ankara.

The Taliban, however, warned Turkey in several statements last week to leave with other foreign Nato troops, warning Erdogan not to make a "big mistake".

Sullivan said the Taliban’s threats shouldn’t deter Turkey from efforts to provide security for Kabul airport.

“We do not believe that what the Taliban has said publicly should or will deter the efforts underway right now to establish that security presence, which in turn will enable international missions - diplomatic missions to operate,” he said.

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