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Afghanistan: Turkey and US nearing deal on Kabul airport mission

Turkish troops to receive tangible US military support, but Ankara also wants American troops to help protect diplomatic convoys
Turkish soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force distribute chocolate to children during the month of Ramadan in Kabul on 13 August 2011 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara and Levent Kemal

Turkish and US officials are getting close to a technical agreement over securing Kabul airport after Nato's withdrawal. But a small disagreement on Turkey's possible role in providing security outside the facility is remaining, two people familiar with the issue told Middle East Eye.

A US technical delegation visited Ankara last week and held consultations with officials from the foreign ministry, defence ministry and intelligence to draft a framework for the Turkish presence in Kabul airport, whose accessibility is crucial for the foreign missions, aid groups and the Afghan government.

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Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Joe Biden reached a verbal agreement earlier this month that would see Turkey take over the airport's security after the vast majority of Nato forces pull out of Afghanistan, which is expected to be completed in mid-July. Erdogan asked for financial and logistical aid, as well as assistance from partner countries.

The Turkish military has been guarding the airport since 2013, alongside the US, Hungary, France and other Nato allies.

The airport is a lifeline to the Afghan government, which has suffered several huge setbacks against the Taliban in major districts, prompting a US intelligence report that said the administration could totally collapse six months after Nato's withdrawal.

Two people familiar with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told MEE that Turkish and US delegations reached a mutual understanding on the following issues:

  • The US will provide military and intelligence support to Turkish forces
  • The US and Nato will undertake the financial burden for the operation
  • Turkey will be able to ask for additional military help if it is needed
  • Turkey won't take on any combat mission outside the airport
  • Turkey will be able to get any foreign partners it wants and Ankara will be permitted to deploy domestic security advisers to the Afghan government.

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

The sources said, as reported last week by the Associated Press citing US officials, that Washington had agreed to leave behind a counter-rocket, artillery, mortar (C-RAM) system, which has a capability that the Turkish military lacks, to counter Taliban mortar or rocket attacks. The Pentagon would also leave a few US troops at the airport to operate the system and aircrew for helicopter support. 

One area of disagreement between Turkey and the US had been guarding the diplomatic convoys shuttling between the foreign missions and the airport. The sources suggested that Turkey refused to provide security for the convoys alone, but was likely to take on the task if other countries such as the US were to share the burden.

The Associated Press reported that the US was expected to keep roughly 650 US troops in Kabul to provide security for American diplomats and the airport. 

Boots on the ground

It is estimated that around 500 Turkish troops and 200 technical personnel will remain in Afghanistan, which could be enough for Ankara to take part in missions to protect the diplomatic convoys. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar last week said in televised remarks that Ankara, "for now", didn't need to send additional troops to Afghanistan. 

The sources told MEE that Ankara was willing to deploy domestic security advisers to work with the Afghan government to contribute to the general peace and security of Kabul, which is marred by attacks, mostly suicide bombings, suspected to have been undertaken by the Taliban.

“The consultations have been generally positive. We will continue to hold discussions on the issue,” one Turkish official told MEE.

Even though Turkey has had a close relationship with Afghanistan since the late Ottoman Empire, the Taliban has been outspoken against an enduring Turkish presence in Kabul ever since the possibility was first raised by the US government, warning Ankara not to make a “big mistake”.

'The consultations have been generally positive. We will continue to hold discussions on the issue'

- Turkish official

The Taliban has largely avoided hitting Turkish troops since the Nato intervention began in 2001.

Turkey's government sees an opportunity in Afghanistan to repair its broken relationship with Washington, which is at odds with Ankara over the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems and elements of its foreign policy.

A Washington source last week 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.”

Erdogan said earlier this month that Turkey could guard the airport with troops from Hungary and Pakistan. 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.

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 Minister Viktor Orban on the sidelines of a Nato summit earlier this month.

The Turkish official said the US and Turkey were still working on the possible partners and there had been no final decision made on the issue.

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