Why Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reaching out to Taliban as US exits Afghanistan

Why Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reaching out to Taliban as US exits Afghanistan

Why Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reaching out to Taliban as US exits Afghanistan

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday held his first talks with the Taliban in Kabul.

At a time when most countries are pulling out their diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, the Turkish embassy in Kabul has returned to its building and announced that it will maintain its diplomatic presence.

Speaking to the Turkish media on a flight back from Montenegro on Sunday, Erdogan said, "Our plan now is to maintain our diplomatic presence in this way. We are continuously updating our plans according to developments regarding the security situation."

Erdogan further said that "Turkey is ready to lend all kinds of support for Afghanistan’s unity but will follow a very cautious path", reiterating it will first wait to see what sort of an administration the Taliban would establish to run this country with 40 million population.

Turkey is willing to help but the doors should be open to this end, Erdogan underlined, repeating that the Turkish intelligence is continuing its talks with the Taliban.

However, Erdogan poured cold water over a purported plan that Turkey was to operate Kabul airport and the Taliban would be responsible for security, saying Ankara would be in a tough position if another attack occurs.

Turkey, which is part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) mission, has been responsible for security at the airport for the last six years.

“We have held our first talks with the Taliban, which lasted three-and-a-half hours,” the Turkish leader said, adding: “If necessary, we will have the opportunity to hold such talks again.”

Meanwhile, two officials said Turkey will not help run Kabul airport after NATO's withdrawal unless the Taliban agree to a Turkish security presence after deadly attacks outside the airport highlighted the perils of any such mission.

The Taliban have asked Turkey for technical help to run the airport after the 31 August deadline for all foreign military forces to pull out of Afghanistan, an ultimatum they say applies equally to Turkish troops.

Keeping the airport open after foreign forces hand over control is vital not just for Afghanistan to stay connected to the world but also to maintain aid supplies and operations.

“How can we give the security to you? How would we explain it to the world if you took over security and there is another bloodbath there? This is not an easy job,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.

More than 100 people died in the suicide attack on Thursday outside Kabul airport, including 13 US service personnel, slowing down the airlift before US President Joe Biden’s deadline for evacuations ends on Tuesday.

What does Erdogan gain?

Erdogan’s critics have been quick to attribute his airport offer to adventurism or desperation, but there are rational motives.

Firstly, Turkey, which has recently come under the scrutiny of NATO allies for its policies in Libya, Iraq and Syria, is looking to improve its standing within NATO.

Secondly, it will also improve its ability to protect long-standing relationships with various competing ethnic and political factions in the country.

Erdogan is also cozying up to the Taliban in an attempt to limit the flow of irregular migrants to Turkey.

According to foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey cannot take the burden of a new migrant wave from Afghanistan.

In a press meeting, Cavusoglu had said, "As Turkey, we have sufficiently carried out our moral and humanitarian responsibilities regarding migration. It is out of the question for us to take an additional refugee burden."

Reiterating the same stand, Erdogan had said, "Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse."

Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the world’s largest refugee population, in addition to about 300,000 Afghans. It has been reinforcing measures along its eastern border to prevent crossings in anticipation of a new migrant wave from Afghanistan.

With anti-migrant sentiment running high in Turkey, Erdogan will want to seize the opportunity with the Taliban to stem this migration and help his image and popularity among his own people.

Other than the geopolitical scenario, Erdogan also stands to benefit from asserting himself in Afghanistan on the financial side. If stability, under the Taliban regime is possible, private companies favoured by the Turkish president will benefit from reconstruction contracts.

The end of clashes in Afghanistan could eventually unlock the significant potential of the region, which could be an important opportunity for the Turkish business community.

Finally, security a strong presence in Afghanistan will help Erdogan to balance its diplomatic efforts with Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, thus growing its own geopolitical role and establishing itself on the global map.

For these very reasons, even the Taliban appears to see Turkey as a necessary partner for Afghanistan’s future.

The question remains if Erdogan's gambit will pay off or, as his critics believe, be another one of his ill-conceived projects.

With inputs from agencies