With most U.S. and other NATO forces in the process of symbolically withdrawing from Afghanistan by September 11, Turkey has offered to guard and run Kabul’s airport. Although Washington has expressed positive interest in the offer, next week’s meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will likely be frosty, albeit friendly.
One Turkish official said: “Following the United States’ decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, Turkey has made an offer to ensure the security of Kabul airport. In this framework, there are talks underway with NATO and the United States.”
U.S.-Turkish relations are extremely strained at the moment due to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system and its independent foreign policy that is outside of Washington’s aegis. Turkish experts believe that by taking on this responsibility, it can be a step towards restoring ties with Washington.
However, behind this façade of taking on extra responsibilities on behalf of NATO to improve relations with Washington, it is more than likely that Turkey’s interest in Kabul airport is part of its strategy to increase its influence in the Turkic Heartland of Central Asia and project its influence over Jammu and Kashmir in support of Pakistan against India.
Turkey has strongly invested in its relations with Afghanistan as part of its strategy of being able to project influence in South and Central Asia. Turkey’s main interest in Central Asia is to establish a Turkic corridor extending from Istanbul to China’s Xinjiang province. Running Kabul airport is one step towards controlling such vital infrastructure.
More cynically though, despite being located thousands of kilometers away, Ankara has championed the Kashmir cause in favor of Pakistan. Ankara and Islamabad have been building a strategic alliance for decades, with the Pakistani military involved in the 1974 invasion of Cyprus and Pakistani pilots flying Turkish jets that violate Greek airspace.
This strategic alliance has only been bolstered and improved under Erdoğan’s tenure. It is recalled that in January, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan issued a joint statement declaring that they will collectively support each other’s territorial ambitions, i.e. in support of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir, and Turkey over the East Mediterranean.
Erdoğan said in September last year that the Kashmir dispute is a “burning issue” and Turkish media has been closely following events in the region. In the transactional relationship between Ankara and Islamabad, it is believed that Pakistani nuclear scientists will be utilized in the coming years to establish Turkey’s own nuclear arsenal.
India has not been idle either in the face of Turkish provocations and has prioritised its own creation of a China-styled economic-transportation corridor to reach European markets. In this project, the India-invested port of Chabahar in Iran (which is exempt from U.S. sanctions as it competes with the nearby China-invested port of Gwadar in Pakistan) will run through Armenia, Georgia and Russia before finally reaching Scandinavia, with a second corridor splitting off to go across the Black Sea to Bulgaria and Greece, thus bypassing Turkey.
In its effort to counter Turkish encroachment, New Delhi has broken out of its traditional policy of only pursuing power projections within its immediate region. Now India is actively pursuing new partnerships outside of its traditional range. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in September last year that his country considers Greece a “strategic partner.” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said earlier this week that Jaishankar’s upcoming visit to Athens is “something which is of special importance.”
The Greek General Director of Civil Defense and International Relations, Dr. Konstantinos Balomenos, received on May 25 the Defense Attaché of the Indian Embassy in Prague, Colonel Anupam Ashish. They discussed exercises and operational training at a bilateral and multilateral level, military academic training and dealing with hybrid threats.
If Turkey were to assume control of Kabul airport, it can be expected that in the future it will turn into a hub, or at least a point to expand a military presence in Afghanistan that can be used against India in any war it has with Pakistan over Kashmir. With several wars and endless skirmishes over Kashmir, there will certainly be future conflicts over the region, especially emanating from hybrid threats, as the dispute is still unresolved.
India has already expressed concern that Turkey could be sending Syrian mercenaries to fight in Kashmir, as well as other Turkish military personnel. Because of this, New Delhi identified Greece as part of its efforts to counter Turkey, recognizing that the East Mediterranean country has an intimate knowledge of the Turkish military apparatus – something that India does not.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they welcomed the Turkish proposal but cited some concerns about Ankara’s reliability, given their other disagreements over the Syrian Kurds, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the U.S. court case against a Turkish bank and the purchase of the S-400 system – but they also said Washington would find a way to make it work.
With less U.S. and NATO oversight on Turkish actions in Afghanistan, and based on the assumption that it will assume control of Kabul airport, it can be expected that Turkey in the coming years will become increasingly involved in South and Central Asian affairs – even more strongly than it currently is.
New Delhi will certainly be fighting tooth and nail to prevent Turkish control of Kabul airport, whilst U.S. reactions to this will test the foundations of the QUAD alliance.