Turkey has long provided security for Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as part of its contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But as the missions ends, with a NATO withdrawal occurring in parallel to the U.S. drawdown, Ankara is angling for concessions in exchange for continuing its management of the critical airport’s security matters.
Ahead of the June 14 NATO summit, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. President Joe Biden’s first bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, planned to take place on the sidelines, would “center on Turkey’s longtime role in securing Kabul’s airport.” Jessica Donati and Nancy A. Youssef wrote for the Wall Street Journal that the Turkish leader was expected to “seek concessions,” particularly “an agreement from the U.S. that allows Ankara to keep and operate a Russian air defense system,” which has been a point of contention between the two.
In December 2020, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system. In 2017, Erdogan settled a $2.5 billion deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the systems and in 2019 Turkey took delivery of the first four missile batteries.
Following Erdogan’s meeting with Biden, the Turkish president said it had opened a “new era” of diplomatic relations. “We are determined to gain the greatest benefit possible for the country from the positive tone of our talks with Biden, strengthening our channels of communications with the U.S.,” he continued.
In the wake of that meeting, Turkey has engaged in talks with Afghan and U.S. officials about continuing to provide security for the airport. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told reporters after the Biden-Erdogan meeting that both sides had made a “clear commitment” regarding the security of the airport. “We are feeling good about where we are in terms of the planning with the Turks on this issue,” he said.
Turkey has said it would need “diplomatic, logistic and financial assistance” support from the United States, as well as assistance from Pakistan and Hungary. This week Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the country would not send additional troops to maintain security at the airport.
On June 24, Turkish and U.S. military officials reportedly met in Ankara to discuss plans for the airport’s security after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.
Although Biden set September 11, 2021 as the deadline for a full withdrawal, in late May reports suggested that it may be completed by mid-July. In early June, the Pentagon announced the withdrawal was 50 percent complete. The accelerated withdrawal intensifies the necessity to settle security arrangements for Kabul’s main international airport.
Following the meetings on June 24, Akar said, “We will continue to take on the responsibility of operating the Hamid Karzai International Airport, which we have been doing for the past six years, if the necessary conditions are met.” He did not elaborate on the conditions.
“Discussions on this matter are continuing. No decisions have been reached for now,” he said.
For landlocked Afghanistan, with highways increasingly dangerous due to Taliban and other militant activity, the country’s airports are critical assets.