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As the chaos in Afghanistan continues to unfold, Turkey has emerged as a possible bridge between the new Taliban regime and the international community.
Before the fall of Kabul at the weekend, Ankara had proposed a role for itself in securing the Afghan capital’s international airport after the US and Nato withdrawal.
Although the Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid advance seemed to scupper the plan, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday it was “too early” to say whether it remained a possibility.
A day earlier, he welcomed the Taliban’s statement calling for peaceful relations and pledging not to allow its territory to be used for attacks on other countries.
Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey was in talks with “all sides, including the Taliban”.
Turkey announced its willingness to operate and secure Hamid Karzai International Airport during a meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Joe Biden in June, though the announcement was met initially with hostility from the Taliban.
Rhetoric between the Islamist militants and Ankara has mellowed in recent weeks, however, suggesting Turkey could hold the key to ensuring Afghanistan does not return to the international isolation it faced before 2001, when it harboured Al Qaeda.
At the end of last month, Mr Erdogan provoked domestic criticism when he said Turkey had “nothing against [the Taliban’s] beliefs”.
Last week, he suggested a face-to-face meeting with the group’s leadership.
“We want good relations with Turkey,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told Turkish state-run broadcaster TRT last month. “Turkey is our brother; we share many common issues based on belief.”
Ankara’s initial offer to run the Kabul airport was seen widely as a bid to repair relations with Washington by keeping a diplomatic lifeline open for the Western-backed government that has now been forced to flee.
“Turkey’s intention to use the Afghanistan card – including sending Turkish troops to play a bigger role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of allied forces – is very much linked to its intention to improve relations with the West, especially the US,” said Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the London-based Foreign Policy Centre.
“Erdogan has a difficult relationship with the West and this was a way to establish a direct channel with the Biden administration and show Turkey as a reliable partner again in the international arena.”
Turkey could provide the Taliban with legitimacy and credibility on the world stage by recognising the regime, mediating with the West and inviting it to participate in international and regional politics, said Eyup Ersoy, international relations faculty member at Turkey’s Ahi Evran University.
“Turkey is one of the most influential Muslim countries capable of performing diplomatic initiatives in different regions,” he said.
“The Turkish military has not taken part in military operations against the Taliban as a fighting force and there is a good measure of sympathy among the Afghan populace towards Turkey.
“The Taliban’s engagement with Turkey would not encounter serious domestic opposition and would arguably increase its standing in the Afghan public opinion.”
Turkey, which has Nato’s second-largest military after the US, has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001. It has about 650 soldiers in the country, some of whom are on duty at Kabul airport, helping to organise the speedy departure of Afghans and foreigners, including Turkish citizens.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, said Mr Erdogan has greater freedom to act overseas than his Nato allies.
“The ability to deploy troops rapidly and continue with overseas missions despite mounting Turkish casualties ... has until now given the Erdogan government a unique bargaining power in bilateral and multilateral relations,” Dr Erdemir said.
While Turkey has past experience of acting as a go-between with difficult regimes, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad during the early stages of the Arab uprisings, it has had limited relations with the Taliban.
However, its allies Pakistan and Qatar are close to the group and could facilitate Ankara’s involvement.
“It’s very much linked to how Turkey is going to work with Pakistan and Qatar,” Mr Caliskan said. “Turkey doesn’t have any expertise or knowledge about the different groups in Afghanistan while the Pakistanis have been working with the Taliban for 40 years.”
Stabilising Afghanistan could potentially ease domestic pressure on Mr Erdogan over Afghan refugees crossing Iran to reach Turkey, where anti-migrant sentiment has erupted into riots on the streets of Ankara.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has accused Mr Erdogan of striking a deal with the US to accept Afghans fleeing the Taliban, something the Turkish government and the US embassy in Ankara deny.
However, there are risks for Turkey in cosying up to the Taliban, whose recent claims of softening its attitude on issues such as women’s rights remain to be tested and could present Turkey with “difficult choices,” Dr Ersoy said, such as “being silent on the human rights abuses of the Taliban”.
“The international community would [also] attribute responsibility to Turkey for the unforeseen, impetuous, immoral or criminal actions of the Taliban in its interactions with the international community,” he said.