Erdogan weighing risks of Kabul airport deployment amid Turkey-Taliban talks

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Ankara had not made a final decision on a Taliban request for support to run Kabul airport after foreign forces withdraw, citing security concerns and uncertainty in Afghanistan.

However, he added that talks were still underway with the militant group.

“We have held our first talks with the Taliban, which lasted for three and a half hours. If necessary, we will hold similar talks again.

“The Taliban have made a request regarding the operation of Kabul airport. They say, ‘we’ll ensure security and you can operate it.’ But we have not made a decision yet because there is always a possibility of death and such things there,” Erdogan told a news conference in Istanbul before leaving for Bosnia.

The president said that “calm should be restored in Kabul” before a decision was made on the airport.

He added that there was a risk of getting “sucked in” to security flare-ups and subsequent conflict.

The talks were reportedly held at the military zone of the airport where the Turkish embassy is temporarily based.

Erdogan’s comments came as US forces helping to evacuate Afghans braced for more attacks while racing to complete their mission before the Aug. 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden.

At least 13 US military personnel and more than 60 Afghans died in Daesh attacks around Kabul airport on Thursday.

The civilian section of the airport has been on the US agenda as well.

“A functioning state, a functioning economy, a government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world, needs a functioning commercial airport,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Monday.

Hande Firat, a pro-government journalist, said that a private Turkish company or Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national flag carrier, might operate the Kabul airport if the necessary security precautions are taken.

Firat added that Turkey requested the establishment of a special security system backed by a private security company, rather than rely solely on armed Taliban members.

Many analysts said that if Turkey assumes the responsibility of running the airport, it could present a unique opportunity for Ankara to build leverage over the Western community as a fellow NATO ally.

“Thursday’s attacks, as well as the uncertainty looming over the Taliban’s consolidation of power, show that Turkey might enter a risky and highly volatile security environment,” Magdalena Kirchner, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Kabul, told Arab News.

According to Kirchner, without Turkish or allied troops on the ground — or a fully operating embassy — Ankara would have to rely on Taliban forces for the protection of Turkish citizens and private companies.

“With key state institutions like the police and other security forces undergoing major changes, Turkey might find it hard to rely on Afghan intelligence agencies or security. Beyond arrangements with the Taliban, Ankara might also resort to private military contractors,” she told Arab News.

Turkey has about 600 troops in Afghanistan. Last month, the Taliban issued a warning that it would consider all Turkish forces as “occupiers.”

Marc Pierini, an analyst at Carnegie Europe, said that the devastating bombings on Thursday proved that providing security near the airport is “extremely difficult,” despite assurances by the Taliban.

“If Turkey was to take charge of security inside the airport, it would be entirely dependent on the Taliban’s security policy and performance outside the airport’s perimeter. And it would operate without other NATO forces around. At this point in time, such an operation looks like a very risky proposition,” he told Arab News.

The deployment of troops at Kabul airport has been the subject of intense talks between Ankara and Washington over recent months, with some financial, logistical and diplomatic conditions attached.

Kirchner said that cooperation at Kabul airport could serve as a test for “normalizing” relations between Western states and the Taliban.

“The airport continues to be the major hub for any humanitarian, diplomatic or development efforts by the Taliban to overcome sanctions and their international isolation. It also helps the international community assist Afghan communities in need, provide consular support to citizens in the country and, if possible, support Afghanistan’s social and economic development,” she said.

Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based expert on Middle East politics, said: “The negotiations between Erdogan and his US counterpart Joe Biden concentrated on running the military section of the airport, through which humanitarian assistance would be channeled to the country,” he told Arab News.

He added that running the civilian part of the airport would be a “simple commercial operation.”

Sezer said: “The Taliban are reportedly conducting talks with Russia for the same mission. So, it is unclear for now who will assume this responsibility. One thing is for sure: These talks will be used for domestic popularity purposes.”

Source: Arab News

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