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Role in Afghanistan Would Boost Turkey’s Diplomatic Power, Analysts Say

Turkey is attempting to establish a role in Afghanistan to use as diplomatic leverage with the US, analysts tell The Media Line, as officials say Ankara is in talks with the Taliban to reopen Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Turkey and its close ally Qatar have emerged as key players with access to the militant group at a time when Ankara’s standing with its NATO allies has weakened.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was “working closely with our partners Qatar and Turkey to help get the airport in Kabul up and running as quickly as possible.”

Turkey had been planning for months on leading security at the airport after America pulled its troops out, and it raised the prospect of doing so during a high-profile meeting between US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in June.

Qatar said on Thursday that it was in talks, alongside Turkey, with the Taliban to help reopen the Kabul airport.

The Taliban seized control of it on August 15 when US troops left the country after a chaotic evacuation effort.

Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, said Turkey is trying to show its NATO partners, especially to US, the benefits of having a Muslim-majority country in the military alliance.

He added, however, that if Ankara appeases the Taliban to too great an extent, it risks being seen as less of a partner to the West.

“It will only confirm that Turkey is really becoming an Islamic actor,” Esen said. “They [would] further expand the gap between Turkey and its other NATO allies.”

Ties between Ankara and its Western partners, especially the US, have deteriorated for years.

At their lowest point, Washington placed sanctions on Turkey for its detention of an American pastor that led to the lira free falling and an economic crisis that contributed to major losses for Erdoğan’s party in local elections.

More recently, the US implemented sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Esen said Turkey wants to be involved in Afghanistan for domestic reasons as well.

Reconstruction of the country could lead to lucrative contracts for Turkey, whose economy has significantly deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, Ankara’s presence in Afghanistan might increase stability in the country and consequently reduce the number of civilians fleeing.

Turkey hosts more than four million refugees, including hundreds of thousands of Afghans.

There has been tension in recent years between refugees and locals, which has put pressure on Erdoğan.

During a joint press conference with his German counterpart in Antalya on August 29, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “It is out of the question for us to take an additional refugee burden.”

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst with the Stratfor geopolitical intelligence firm, said the Taliban pose challenges to Turkey’s plan, as shown by their seeming unwillingness to have foreign troops on the ground, which would limit how big of a role Ankara would play.

He said Turkey’s chances of success will largely depend on whether the Taliban will actually change from their past behavior and genuinely seek international recognition.

“As long as the Taliban are pushing along the moderate path, then Washington would see this as a useful role for Turkey,” Bohl said.

The war in Afghanistan started nearly 20 years ago because the Taliban would not hand over Osama bin Laden, who the US said masterminded the September 11 attacks.

Such protection for terrorist groups would need to stop, Bohl said, for the US to see a benefit in Turkey having a role in the country, but Washington will push Ankara to distance itself if the Taliban return to their previous behavior.

“That is an opportunity for Turkey,” he said.

“[But] if the Taliban revert to type or if factions within the Taliban, the hard-liner ones, start to make more of a power play to control more of the country or they agitate against any kind of foreign presence, then for Turkey this could be something that potentially might not necessarily be a disaster but [which] doesn’t go anywhere,” Bohl said.