Can Ankara play a constructive role in Afghanistan?

For starters, Turkey must negotiate with the Taliban for the exit of thousands of Afghans

The news out of Afghanistan has been one heartbreak after another: Afghans falling from the sky; a toddler crushed in a stampede; women forced into hiding; and Hazara men massacred.

Amid this steady drumbeat of gloom, bits of good news shine all the brighter. So it was with Afghan film director Sahraa Karimi, who feared Taliban reprisal for her work as an artist but last week thanked the Turkish embassy in Kabul, among others, for helping her escape to safety.

She’s among the lucky few. A week into the Taliban era, Kabul airport is something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The Taliban have in recent days intensified their hunt for Afghans who collaborated with occupying powers, driving tens of thousands of suddenly in-danger Afghans to besiege the airport gates, surging, jostling and pleading to get in. Flash bangs, clouds of red teargas and volleys of rifle fire barely keep them at bay.

Many don’t even get that far. Armed men have encircled the airport with checkpoints, “refusing entry to whoever it likes", according to Afghan journalist Frud Bezhan, beating people with rifle butts and threatening to shoot.

Several Nato states have called for the US-set evacuation deadline of August 31 to be extended due to the “very dire” situation at Kabul airport. On Friday, President Joe Biden said US officials had been in talks with the Taliban to guarantee safe passage for those who wanted to leave. But the next day the US embassy warned American citizens to stay away from the airport, citing security threats.

If that’s the case, what chance do Afghans have?

The number of those who need to get out is larger than you might think. It’s not only Afghans who worked for Nato countries that are in danger. The Taliban appear to view all those who worked for a western business, government or NGO, or the Afghan government, as deserving of retribution. Last week, for instance, as the group hunted an Afghan journalist who had worked for German news outlet Deutsche Welle, they killed a member of his family and seriously injured another.

Additionally, the evacuations are likely to take months. Like the DW journalist, most of the thousands of targeted Afghans remain in hiding, and thus will not be boarding a flight out anytime soon. Right now, as the chaos and desperation peak, no government may be better placed to mediate between the Taliban and the West and evacuate these thousands of Afghans than the one in Ankara.

Turkey already has some 500 soldiers at Kabul airport, helping maintain security. Ankara had planned to take over security at Kabul airport once US forces departed, but that plan has now probably been put to the side. Still, Turkish troops and officials are familiar with the airport and logistical hurdles and have 20 years of experience in-country.

Two of Turkey’s closest allies are Qatar and Pakistan. Qatar, where Turkey maintains a sizable military base, has hosted the Taliban in exile for years, giving the group an international platform. Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI, helped create the Taliban in the 1990s, and has maintained relatively close ties. The Taliban's first foreign guest will be Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, arriving today. Ankara has reportedly already taken advantage of these links, reaching out to Doha and Islamabad last month in an effort to ease Taliban ties.

Turkey is a Nato member, and thus an ally of the West, even as its ruling Justice and Development Party and the Taliban share Islamist roots. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week said he was open to Turkey-Taliban co-operation, and on Friday Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said “we need Turkey the most” to rebuild Afghanistan.

Turkey’s construction sector is among the world’s most active, completing more than $400 billion in projects abroad, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. Ankara has experience helping rebuild troubled Muslim-majority states such as Somalia and Sudan and Mr Erdogan has long pegged his international reputation on coming to the rescue of the world’s oppressed Muslims.

Though such statements may be in part a political pose, he has in the past raised the issue of Beijing's alleged persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang and that of the Myanmar army's crimes against the Rohingya (both are Muslim-majority ethnic groups). He opened Turkey’s borders to some 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

Saving Afghans would dovetail nicely with this, and Turkey is already working on evacuations. There’s Karimi, the filmmaker. And several top Afghan officials, including the former foreign minister and head of national security, escaped via a Turkish Airlines flight last week.

On Thursday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab thanked Turkey for helping ensure the safe evacuations of British citizens and Afghan nationals. The US and western governments have an aversion to talking with the Taliban. Nikki Haley, who was US ambassador to the UN under previous president Donald Trump and a potential 2024 challenger to Mr Biden, last week compared Taliban talks to “dealing with the devil”.

So in negotiating with the Taliban for the Afghans’ exit, Turkey would be very publicly saving thousands of Muslim lives while helping its Nato allies save face internationally without sacrificing moral standing. And as it faces sanctions for its purchase of Russian missile defences and eastern Mediterranean aggressions, overseeing successful evacuations could help bring Turkey back into the good graces of the US and EU.

Where would the Afghans go while they await visas? At least a dozen countries have signalled their willingness to host Afghans transiting to the US, including Turkey and the UAE, which on Friday agreed to host 5,000 Afghan nationals.

What would the Taliban have to gain? The extremists have repeatedly said they have changed, vowing that those who worked for the Afghan government and occupying forces would be safe. But a UN report last week detailed how the Taliban have intensified their hunt, and with better intelligence.

Co-operating with Turkey to evacuate these Afghans would address the extremist group’s concerns about the presence of “collaborators” while strengthening its claims of reform and encouraging broader international acceptance. In return, Turkey’s Nato allies, specifically the US and IMF, might even agree to unfreeze some of Afghanistan’s $10bn in international assets.

Once the evacuations are complete, Turkey could serve as Nato’s “man in Kabul”. As Turkish construction firms reap the benefits of rebuilding, Turkish troops and diplomats, with assistance from allies, could ensure the Taliban curb human rights violations while taking steps toward a coalition government.

Will it happen? Amid such nightmarish tragedy, one can always dream.

Published: August 23rd 2021, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National