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Afghanistan: Turkey exploring ways to station troops in Kabul even after Taliban victory

Ankara to negotiate with the Taliban to maintain its military presence in Afghan capital to protect Turkish political and commercial interests
A member of the Taliban stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, 16 August 2021 (Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara and Levent Kemal

Turkey's government is exploring ways to keep its soldiers stationed at Kabul international airport even after the Taliban have seized control of Afghanistan, two Turkish officials told Middle East Eye.

With the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years, Ankara and Washington had been negotiating a plan to see the Turkish military continue to secure Kabul's airport after US troops leave.

However, just as the two were poised to reach a deal, the Taliban captured the city on Sunday rendering any such agreement irrelevant.

The US is evacuating its entire military presence and the Afghan government no longer exists.

When asked what Ankara will do now, Turkish officials said Turkey has had diplomatic relations with Afghanistan for the past 100 years and there are deep cultural ties between the two nations.

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'However, we will try to negotiate with the Taliban to see if they would like us to maintain our presence, which would be natural for us, considering the deep ties'

- Turkish official

“Currently, there is no deal for us to stay in Kabul,” one official told MEE.

“However, we will try to negotiate with the Taliban to see if they would like us to maintain our presence, which would be natural for us, considering the deep ties."

Multiple Taliban officials have said that they won’t permit the presence of Turkish forces in the country as part of a foreign mission, even though they consider Turkey a brotherly nation.

Yet with the US gone, Ankara believes the calculus may have changed for the Taliban as well.

“Turkey still could secure the airport and it could help the Taliban to obtain a diplomatic presence in Kabul. It might help them to get the diplomatic recognition that they wanted,” the Turkish official added. “If they don’t want us, we can leave.”

The officials also stressed that, despite being part of the Nato mission in Afghanistan, Ankara never carried out a combat mission against the Taliban. They say Turkey has continually supported the now-collapsed Afghan government in every way it could.

“We aren’t invaders and the Taliban knows this. We only have 600 troops there anyway,” the official said.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told Sabah newspaper on Monday that if Turkey isn’t wanted, “we can evacuate our soldiers in 24 hours”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week said he wanted to meet Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the co-founders of the Taliban, to talk about the issue. A Taliban spokesperson said a meeting between the two was possible in the “right circumstances”.

Erdogan said on Sunday that Ankara would do everything it could alongside Pakistan to stabilize the country, but he didn't comment on the Turkish troops.

Meanwhile on Monday, Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli said in a series of tweets it was unthinkable for Turkey to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, adding that talking to the Taliban could stop the flow of Afghan refugees into the country.

Longstanding ties

Different sectors of the Turkish government have contradictory feelings about the military deployment in Kabul.

Some officials at the foreign ministry would like to temporarily close the Turkish embassy in Kabul, pack up the military deployment, and leave. Ankara has so far kept the embassy open, while its diplomatic staff moved to the airport on Saturday to temporarily work from there due to security concerns.

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The military also believes the airport mission is now riskier, and with the Taliban controlling the city, guarding the facility doesn’t make much sense.

Yet, the deployment has always been more of a political decision than a military one and could continue to be so.

A second Turkish official said negotiations with the Taliban were still underway and a decision on the evacuation of the troops hasn't been taken.

The official said the military presence in Kabul would be important for Turkish interests in the years ahead, particularly as Turkey is interested in the trade opportunities that would be associated with the reconstruction of the country. 

Ankara also believes cultural ties - many Afghans in the country's north are Turkic - necessitate a continuing and longstanding relationship with Afghanistan.

“We have schools, businessmen, and other commercial interests in this country,” the official said. “It is also a strategic move for us to remain in Afghanistan through what we call 'military diplomacy'.”

Turkey isn't alone in its decision to directly contact the Taliban, as China has already declared its intention to establish "friendly ties" with the group and Russia green-lit possible recognition in upcoming days. Iran also described the situation as "an opportunity" for the future. 

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