Can Turkish forces tame the Taliban in Afghanistan?
With almost all Western soldiers having withdrawn from Afghanistan, the central government is now largely on its own in the fight against the Taliban. Yet Kabul could soon receive military support from Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed plans to this effect to his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on the fringes of the NATO summit in Brussels in June. The focus of the engagement is apparently to be Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport, which Turkish soldiers could protect.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasised the importance of Turkey, which could play a "key role" in Afghanistan. An official decision on the project has not yet been made, however, and negotiations between Ankara and Washington may be going on behind the scenes.
But it is not only Western actors who are defending their interests in the event of a possible Turkish operation in Afghanistan. Since the extensive withdrawal of foreign troops, the Taliban have also made their claim to power in the country clear – their units are on the advance in numerous regions. Most recently, the Taliban succeeded in capturing a strategically important district in the Afghan province of Kandahar.
Taliban will not tolerate Turkish "occupation"
Turkish involvement has been welcomed by NATO officials because Turkey, as a Muslim-majority country, could play a mediating role on the Hindu Kush. Taliban spokesman Suheyl Shaheen, meanwhile, clearly rejected the plan to the BBC. Any foreign soldiers who remained in the country after September would be treated as occupation forces, he said. "All foreign forces, contractors, advisers, trainers should withdraw from the country."
Experts warn of the enormous risks of a Turkish military operation in Kabul. Ilhan Uzgel, an expert on international relations at Ankara University, recalls that the 60,000 Taliban face a nominally 300,000-strong Afghan army that has been trained by NATO for 20 years.
"Yet Afghan cities are being retaken. The Afghan army, which is actually stronger on paper, is not making much of an impact on the battlefield," he analyses.
Sezin Oney, a specialist in international relations, also believes that the Taliban's triumphant advance cannot be stopped. "Foreign soldiers in Afghanistan have to be tolerated by the Taliban," Oney said. Therefore, he said, the Turkish government's hands are tied. Faruk Logoglu, retired ambassador, also points out that the Taliban has recently expanded its dominance. "If Turkey ignores the risk posed by the Taliban, there will be dire consequences, both financial and moral."
Ankara attempts to appease NATO partners
Turkish relations with many NATO partners are also strained. Washington is not alone in expressing incomprehension over Turkey's decision to protect its airspace with Russia's S-400 missile defence system.
In response to these decisions, the U.S. has kicked Turkey out of the F-35 stealth bomber programme, which the Turkish Air Force is now denied. Relations have also been strained by the U.S. president's decision to classify the massacre of Armenians during World War I as genocide.
Experts assume that President Erdogan is currently trying to smooth the waters, not least in order to avoid sanctions. To appease its Western partners, Ankara is now even prepared to take on risky operations in Afghanistan, says expert Ilhan Uzgel. Ankara is sending a clear message to the West that it wants to co-operate more on security issues. "Erdogan is trying to show that he is now turning towards the West."
Hilal Koylu & Daniel Derya Bellut
© Deutsche Welle 2021