US delegation visits Turkey for Afghanistan talks despite lingering differences

Delegation arrives on Thursday to co-ordinate Ankara’s role in securing Kabul’s airport after US withdrawal

(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 08, 2018, people arrive at the domestic terminal of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The US on June 17, 2021, hailed what it said was a promise from Turkey in talks with President Joe Biden to secure Kabul's airport once US forces leave. / AFP / Dominique FAGET
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A US delegation is due to arrive in Turkey this week, the Pentagon confirmed on Tuesday, as Washington and Ankara look to put the finishing touches on a deal that would give Turkish authorities a senior role in overseeing the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon did not disclose who would be travelling, but the Turkish Defence Ministry said the delegation is “technical” in nature and is expected to arrive in Ankara on Thursday.

Efforts to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan will lead the talks.

“Turkey agreed to take the lead on the protection of the airport in this meeting,"  Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said.

"However, there are still details to be worked out on this issue. There is much more work to be done."

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced the US-Turkey deal on Friday following President Joe Biden’s summit with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels last week.

Mr Biden "and President Erdogan agreed that they would work together to make this happen,” he said.

Mr Sullivan stated that two teams would be put in place to make sure Ankara receives the support it needs during this mission.

US officials see securing the vital airport as a critical element to maintaining stability in Kabul as well as the continuation of the work of embassies, aid groups and NGOs.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, saw the Kabul airport deal as a natural outcome given Ankara’s existing influence over the facility.

"Turkey is already there and someone needs to run it. Ankara stepped in and was met by a US and Nato willingness to agree to many of the Turkish demands to stay," Mr Stein told The National.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin discussed support for the mission with Turkish Minister of National Defence Hulusi Akar on Saturday.

Despite the deal, tension in the US-Turkish relationship continues.

“We are mired in this new status quo, where the relationship is stable but not positive. The two sides disagree about a lot but have agreed to agree on Kabul and are working on humanitarian aid issues in Syria,” Mr Stein said.

Max Hoffman, director of national security and international policy at the Centre for American Progress, said the US-Turkey relationship was undergoing a paradigm shift under Mr Biden.

"The Biden administration inherited a chaotic, personalised presidential relationship from [former president Donald] Trump," Mr Hoffman told The National.

"The last seven months have focused on re-establishing some healthy distance at the leader level, signalling displeasure on issues like human rights and the S-400 missile defence system, and returning relations to normal channels."

He saw the Biden administration as holding the line on the S-400 penalties while not interfering in ongoing legal cases against Turkey in the US.

These include a sanctions evasion case against Turkish bank Halkbank and the recent extradition request for Turkish businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz.

“That leaves us in this compartmentalised, transactional stasis as Mr Erdogan plays nice to protect a fragile economy and the US tries to settle things down to focus on other priorities and wait for the next Turkish election,” Mr Hoffman said.