Why Would Turkey Want To Secure Afghanistan’s International Airport?
About six months after the inauguration of the Biden administration nearly 90% of the US fighting troops are pulled out of Afghanistan. The vacuum was filled immediately by Taliban forces who claimed that they now control 85% of the country. After having spent nearly three trillion dollars on the invasion of that country 20 years ago, the Biden administration declared that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and asked its ally, Turkey, to stay there and secure Kabul airport. Did the US go there to secure an airport, then, and why would Turkey want to stay behind even for this limited purpose?
Many observers think that the troop withdrawal was a hasty decision with serious consequences. Some former government officials expressed concern and warned against extremists returning to that country to plan attacks against other nations and to rewind the democratic processes conceived and implemented and US watch. The US president who sent troops there, George W. Bush, when asked if it was a mistake to pull troops out, said, “I think it is, yeah, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad, and I’m sad.”
I don’t think this move was a hasty decision. After all, the US has already spent 20 years there tinkering with all kinds of options. Moreover, political leaders, especially those responsive to electorates, do not make consequential decisions without weighing in the positives and negatives and how such decisions will be received by the people who elect them. It is true that their calculus could be driven by short-term gains or fails to account for all variables. Nonetheless, that does not negate the existence of compelling rationale in the mind of the policy makers and strategic thinkers of an administration that sees itself as a “crisis government”, one charged with rebuilding US governing institutions after four years of impulsive actions by a president who showed little respect for such institutions. In this essay, I will examine the facts and events to surmise about the nature and soundness of what may appear to be some rationale for the sudden pullout of troops from Afghanistan.
To understand the Biden administration’s thinking about US military affairs, one must take a holistic approach, examining as many of the statements issued and actions taken thus far. To that end, recall that the Biden administration’s earliest signal about a change of military posture was his clear and unambiguous call on Saudi Arabia to end its war on Yemen. Equally significant is Biden’s characterizations of China and Russia as strategic rivals or foes. In addition to these two countries, the Biden administration wants to revive the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, which, unlike China, is seen as a purely security threat–not an economic and military adversary like China and Russia. Together, China, Russia, and Iran must be present in Biden’s thinking when he decided to pull troops from Afghanistan, and Turkey is a critical part of the overall strategy.
Ten years ago, when Qatar, with tacit support from Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration, decided to finance and arm a rebellion against the Syrian government, we warned then that such proxy-war modelled on the 1970–80 Afghanistan proxy war, will succeed in reproducing the instability of the past and will fail to achieve any of their desired goals. Here we are today, seeing that prediction playout before us: Syria’s neighbors have been destabilized by the war as much as Syria and yet, the Syrian government is still standing. Moreover, we also see the general lessons from colonialism and occupation: when supporters of the insurgents in Syria scaled back their assistance, the insurgents lost ground; whereas when the supporters of the government of Afghanistan scaled back their presence in that country, insurgents gained ground. The connection between events in Afghanistan and Syria is not merely a duplication of military strategy and foreign policy aims; the connection is organic.
The most successful rebel groups that formed the backbone of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed coalition to which Western and Arab governments channeled money and weapons, were affiliated with al-Qaeda and many of the fighters were trained in Afghanistan. Today, with most of Syria freed from these armed groups, the only large areas still outside the control of the Syrian government are run by either al-Qaeda affiliates or by US-supported Kurdish fighters. The plan to topple the Syrian government in days or weeks turned into a decade long conflict that has exhausted the Syrian government, but importantly, also exhausted Syria’s neighbors, most of whom are US allies including Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. Turkey, especially, faces a dual security challenge: the presence of hardened Salafi armed fighters along its border with Idlib and the growing power of Kurdish fighters along its border with Syria east of Euphrates.
The military presence of Russia in Syria and the existence of the Astana framework that obligates Turkey to address the presence of “terrorists” in Idlib make military action in northwest Syria to bring back that land under government control is certain. Should that happen too soon however, Turkey will have to accommodate the armed fighters it has sponsored and supported and their families by transferring them, again, to other areas under its control or housing them inside Turkey. US withdrawal from Afghanistan provided the Turkish government with a third option. They can transfer highly trained fighters to Afghanistan the same way Turkey transferred many armed fighters out of Syria and into Libya. This option intersected with the US desire to end its longest war of the century and create some leverage that can be used against Russia, China, and Iran at the same time — given that Afghanistan has common border with China and Iran and indirect contact with Russia through former members of the USSR during the Soviet Union era — the central Asian republics.
It is estimated that, among the armed groups active in Idlib, Syria, about 35,000 came from the central Asian republics and from east of China. Turkey will be eager to dispose of these fighters, or use them as leverage. The US might be interested in relocating agents of destabilization from a region full of allies to a region full of adversaries while disrupting the ambitious Chinese global trade network, the Belt and Road Initiative.
This scenario might have been on the mind of the leaders of Russia, Iran, and, to some extent, Pakistan. The letter had always enjoyed good relations with Taliban through at least Pakistan’s secret services according to many reports. But Pakistan’s entangled economic interests with China’s require stability and security. Therefore, Pakistan should have an easier time dealing with the Taliban…