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Opinion
Wednesday Jun 16 2021
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Turkey's role in Afghanistan after withdrawal of NATO troops

The author and other journalists with a Turkish commander in Afghanistan. — Photo provided by author
The author and other journalists with a Turkish commander in Afghanistan. — Photo provided by author

BRUSSELS: During my last visit to Afghanistan, I specifically asked NATO officials to take me to the Turkish sector of the alliance in Kabul. Turkey and Albania are the only Muslim NATO countries that are stationed in Afghanistan. Turkey is the second-largest contingent after the US in NATO.

My objective of visiting the Turkish sector was to assess the Afghans' feelings towards the Turkish Army's presence in NATO.

Interestingly, it was the only sector where they allowed me to move freely. In all the other sectors we were escorted at all times.

We thought that going to Afghanistan with NATO forces will impede or limit the objective of collecting information but to my surprise, the opposite happened: we had greater access to military and development projects.

As per our wishes, we were taken to the Turkish Army's NATO sector, where we were provided bulletproof jackets and helmets.

Read more: US can count on Turkey on Afghanistan troop pullout, says Erdogan

This was the sector of Kabul where there was an atmosphere of great goodwill between the Afghan people and the Turkish soldiers.

The Turkish army runs a dispensary and school for the Afghan public in the sector and provides free medical treatment. The NATO commander of the Turkish forces proudly highlighted Afghan-Turkish relations and history.

And I noticed that the Afghan people did not consider the Turkish troops to be an occupying foreign force.

Therefore, it is being discussed that the Turkish forces stay in Kabul well after the withdrawal of NATO troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his meeting with US President Joe Biden at the sidelines of the NATO summit, discussed the possibility of giving Turkey a special role in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces.

Erdogan told reporters that he had told the US president that Turkey was ready to extend the mandate of Turkish forces in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO forces.

Read more: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkish ministers to discuss Afghan peace prospects

The Turkish president said that the two countries were discussing the possibility of Turkish troops securing the Kabul airport along with Pakistani and Hungarian forces.

Reports from Afghanistan, meanwhile, say the Taliban are rapidly occupying Afghan cities, towns and villages as NATO continue the withdrawal of forces. The move has led to the speculation that sooner or later, after the withdrawal, the Taliban will take over Afghanistan.

In Brussels, Erdogan told the press that Turkey is holding talks with several groups and trying to reach a common agenda. In case of an agreement, the Taliban will be part of the government.

The veracity of the claims contradicts the facts in light of the current Afghan state's military might.

It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will be able to overthrow the Ashraf Ghani administration which has the support of the 350,000-strong Afghan Army and police backed by the United States, Europe and Japan.

After the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban will face this mighty army and ideologically, it will have no moral justification to continue their fight against their Afghan brothers.

Read more: Turkey proposes joint Pakistan, Hungary mission to keep Kabul airport safe

We must not forget during ten years of war by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, the Soviet Union built the Afghan security forces. The soviet-built Afghan army fought for 3 years with the mujahideen despite getting financial military assistance from all over the world, including Pakistan.

The current Afghan army, police and other security agencies have been battling the Taliban for the past eight years. They have been doing so even with a reduced NATO force. So the perception that the Taliban will overrun Kabul is incorrect and misleading.

There are chances that the insurgency will continue in southern Afghanistan and terrorism will continue to strike in big cities as it has in the last 20 years.

NATO wants to build consensus in Afghanistan and is seeking to capitalise on Turkey's special status in Afghanistan because the Turks are valued by the Afghan people.

Read more: Turkey’s Erdogan discusses Afghan peace with PM Imran Khan amid US withdrawal

This is an observation I made when I had visited Kabul.

NATO's relations with Turkey have been strained, especially since the failed 2016 coup. The rift between the alliance and Turkey further widened after Anakara purchased Russia's S-400 defence system despite being a NATO member.

Misunderstandings have further risen after some of the Turkish soldiers posted at European stations took political asylum against the Erdogan government.