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Turkey’s Afghanistan adventure and the revival of Pan-Turkism

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Turkey’s NATO mission in Afghanistan is ending, but Ankara is still planning to establish a military base in the country.

Turkish diplomats have been negotiating with the Taliban to maintain a permanent security presence in the country to protect Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The burning question is whether Ankara will provide a corridor for the transfer of jihadists from Syria to Afghanistan.

International media reported that Ankara’s main aim of running Hamid Karzai International Airport was to please the US government in the hopes that it would end American sanctions over its acquisition of the Russian S-400 advanced missile defense system.

World media earlier reported that Turkey had canceled plans to secure Kabul’s international airport, but it seems that the involvement of the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Afghanistan is not part of its NATO mission, but a separate affair, with the Taliban seeking technical support from Turkey in running the airport.

Erdoğan said on Friday that Turkish diplomats had their first meeting with the Taliban inside Kabul’s airport and that Turkey did not need permission from any other country to negotiate with the Taliban.

It is clear that Turkey is trying to build a permanent military base in the country despite the end of Turkey’s NATO mission.

Erdoğan told reporters in Cyprus on July 20 that the US had negotiated with the Taliban, that Turkey has nothing against (Taliban) beliefs and that Ankara can have a more comfortable dialogue with the Taliban than America can.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying on August 24 that “we want good relations with Turkey, the Turkish government and the Muslim people of the Turkish nation.”

The Kabul airport bombing that killed more than 100 people, including 13 US service members and scores of Afghans on Thursday, reinforced Turkey’s desire to ensure airport security.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who had a press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Ankara on Sunday, expressed Turkey’s plans to run the Kabul airport. He said the bomb attacks have damaged runways, towers, terminals and the civilian side of the airport and that Turkey needs to repair the airport to run it.

Maas said Germany was grateful to Turkey for its offer to continue to help run the airport after NATO’s withdrawal and said Germany was ready to support that financially and technically, Reuters reported. Maas also praised Turkey’s contribution to the realization of evacuation flights.

As a NATO member, Turkey has already been responsible for security at Kabul’s airport, and the Turkish government clearly expressed the view that Ankara would not leave airport security to the Taliban. Turkey has had around 500 troops deployed at the airport since 2015 to keep the airport operational.

President Erdoğan told Turkish broadcaster NTV on Sunday that the Turkish government has not yet decided to run the airport and is not in a hurry to start flights.

He said Turkey can’t leave airport security to the Taliban as Ankara fears that another bloodbath might take place at the airport under the Taliban’s poor security. Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin also told NTV last week that he was not sure if the Taliban had the ability to secure the airport.

While Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is negotiating with the Taliban and Western powers to run Kabul’s airport and keep Turkish security forces in Afghanistan, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu strongly opposes Turkey’s new Afghanistan military adventure.

“My call to the world: I’m nothing [like] Erdogan. I come from the Kuvayi Milliye tradition. No one can declare … my country an open prison [for] refugees. Let me tell you in advance, very tough negotiations are waiting for you,” Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted in Turkish and English on July 18. Kuvayi Milliye was the first armed group to defend the Ottomans’ rights in Anatolia and Rumelia during the early part of the Turkish War of Independence.

Meral Akşener, leader of the Iyi [Good] Party, is also harshly critical of Erdoğan’s Afghanistan policy. “There is no longer any country called Afghanistan. Why should our troops stay there? Stop talking nonsense to please the United States and withdraw our soldiers from this swamp,” she tweeted on August 16.

The majority of Turks and Turkish opposition parties disagree with Erdoğan’s expansionist Afghanistan policy, but Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar commented last month that Turkey was determined to make contributions to the security, peace and welfare of the Afghan people, state broadcaster TRT reported.

Akar is a key official in Turkey’s security policy since Erdoğan’s health has recently deteriorated. Akar, who had several meetings and phone conversations with US, German, British other NATO defense ministers, said at the International Defense Industry Fair held in Istanbul on August 17 that the relevant ministries and institutions were in preparations for a mandate in the event Turkish soldiers are to stay in the Afghan capital of Kabul, the Daily Sabah newspaper reported.

Despite the Turkish opposition’s criticism, the Erdoğan government has been preparing for a bigger role in Afghanistan.

The main agenda of Erdoğan’s meeting with US President Joe Biden at the NATO Summit in Brussels on June 14 was Afghanistan.

Senior Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin commented last month that the US government thanked Turkey for its Kabul airport proposal.

Yetkin mentioned that Erdoğan has been seeking international support for his Afghanistan plan as he congratulated Isaac Herzog on being sworn in to his new role as Israel’s president on July 12. A day later, Erdoğan had a phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the People’s Republic of China.

It is clear that Erdoğan, who has been backing Syrian rebel groups against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad since 2011 as well as reportedly deploying more than 10,000 Syrian fighters in support of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, is planning to pursue an expansionist foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Erdoğan will not hesitate to transfer jihadists from Syria to Afghanistan. Al-Monitor reported that there are an estimated 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan and that some jihadist groups facing pressure from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria are eying Afghanistan as a new haven now that the Taliban has taken control.

No one has expressed Turkey’s new adventure in Afghanistan better than Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of Erdoğan’s electoral alliance partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who said on Sunday that “the evacuation of Turkish soldiers from Afghanistan is a right decision but if needed, Turkey’s military presence in Afghanistan to fight against terrorists is an obligation stemming from its [the Turkish people’s] faith and cultural and historical ties with the region. Ankara can’t be safe if there’s no security in Kabul.”

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