Biden Should Be Wary of Erdogan's Afghanistan Gambit | Opinion

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he wants to help the United States secure Afghanistan after the departure of American troops, but one has to question the reliability of an ally who admitted last week that Turkey, "does not have any conflicting issues with [the Taliban's] beliefs." Erdogan cast further doubt on his allegiance by suggesting the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan has been illegitimate from the get-go. "Imperial powers entered Afghanistan; they have been there for over 20 years," the Turkish president said.

These comments ought to serve as red flags amid ongoing negotiations between Ankara and Washington over Erdogan's offer to deploy Turkish troops to guard Kabul's international airport after U.S. departure. The airport is Kabul's lifeline to the outside world, providing access for aid workers and foreign diplomats.

"The president has made it very clear we're going to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said earlier this month. "We know that in order to do that, you have to have adequate security at the airport."

Entrusting the airport to the Turkish president may not be the wisest choice. Erdogan has a history of supporting the militant Hamas and even, for a while, the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions and purchased weapons from NATO's leading adversary Russia.

Despite the hazards of trusting Erdogan, there has already been a marked softening of the Biden administration's tone toward the Erdogan government.

This evolution began in early June, when Turkey's defense minister suggested that 500 Turkish troops now stationed in Afghanistan could remain to guard and run Hamid Karzai International Airport, assuming sufficient political, financial and logistical support from allies. The Pentagon's Kirby said two days later that U.S. officials "have had ongoing discussions with Turkish leaders about their plans for security at the airport" and that this was "a national decision that President Erdogan has to make and we respect that."

Joe Biden speaks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President Joe Biden speaks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to a plenary session of a NATO summit in Brussels, on June 14, 2021. OLIVIER MATTHYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On June 10, a Taliban spokesperson insisted that Turkey should also withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan under the terms of the February 2020 deal for the pullout of U.S. forces. This weakened Erdogan's hand ahead of his June 14 meeting with Biden—their first in-person meeting since Biden took office. Keen to capitalize on Biden's predicament in Afghanistan, which includes logistical challenges as well as the frustration of NATO allies, Erdogan revised his Kabul offer during the summit to include security cooperation with Hungary and Pakistan to protect the airport. Erdogan hoped that Pakistan and Qatar, which hold sway over the Taliban and are Turkish allies, would intervene on Ankara's behalf and reverse the militant group's opposition to a Turkish military presence in the war-torn country.

The Turkish government also made clear the limits of what it is willing to offer. On June 23, Turkey's defense minister stated that Ankara would not deploy additional troops to Afghanistan, besides the 500 already stationed there. Moreover, Turkey reportedly is not willing to take on any combat mission outside the airport and refuses to provide security for diplomatic convoys shuttling between Kabul's foreign missions and the airport. Meanwhile, Ankara's demands for financial and logistical support from Washington may prove excessive as when Turkey claimed from 2015 onwards that it would take over the counter-ISIS mission from the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, but refused to commit the necessary resources.

There are also reports that the Turkish government is planning to deploy some 2,000 Syrian mercenaries to Afghanistan, as it did for missions in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. This development is likely to draw the ire of the United States and other NATO members given the accusations of war crimes the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria brought against them last September, including hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture, rape and pillaging.

The Taliban continues to voice its opposition to the presence of Turkish troops. The militant group went as far to issue a warning on July 13 that it will view Turkish forces as occupiers and wage "jihad" against them. A Turkish official downplayed the threat the next day, saying Ankara did not expect the Taliban to have a "hostile attitude." The two sides have not had direct talks yet. The Taliban even backed out of a proposed April peace summit in Turkey, dealing a blow to Erdogan's ambitions of becoming a key broker in Afghanistan.

Erdogan's zigzags raise questions about the soundness of Ankara's game plan. On July 19, the Turkish president raised the stakes by calling on the Taliban to "end the occupation of their brothers' soil," in yet another sign of the buildup in tensions. The next day, however, Erdogan pulled a volte-face by making his comments about having no objections to the Taliban's beliefs.

Despite the flaws in his proposals, Erdogan appears to be cashing in already. Since Turkey offered to guard and run Kabul's airport, the Biden administration has toned down its criticism of Erdogan's transgressions at home and abroad. U.S. officials have refrained from condemning Ankara for its ongoing efforts to ban Turkey's second-largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party. Furthermore, the readouts of the June 19 and July 7 phone calls between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Turkish counterpart do not include any mention of ongoing U.S. concerns about Ankara's deployment of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Meanwhile, a Russian official announced on July 20 that for the delivery of the second S-400 batch, "final consultations are underway, a financial model has been put together, as well as a program for technical cooperation on the project." Erdogan might have the wrong impression that his ongoing negotiations with the Biden administration have provided him with the impunity to go forward with the second installment of a weapons deal that subjected him to sanctions last December pursuant to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The continued presence of Turkish troops in Afghanistan may ameliorate some of the risks in Kabul, but realistically it cannot offer a lasting remedy for Afghanistan's impending problems. As U.S. officials continue their negotiations with the Erdogan government for an airport deal that may never materialize, it would be wise not to exacerbate security threats elsewhere by giving Erdogan the impression that he can enjoy impunity on account of the Afghanistan deal.

Aykan Erdemir (@aykan_erdemir) is the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.