How serious is the Turkish-Taliban disagreement over Kabul airport?

The Taliban recently requested the departure of Turkish troops from Afghanistan by September 11th alongside their NATO allies as part of the deal that the US reached with the group. Ankara, however, aims to militarily control of the Kabul airport, which would ensure the US’ continued access to the country. Without that facility in safe hands, America won’t be able to reliably maintain any sort of presence there, not even a diplomatic one. It’s therefore of the highest importance for Washington that Ankara is able to carry through with its plans, though it remains unclear whether it’ll be able to do so considering the Taliban’s strong disagreement with this.

Some further elaboration is required in order to better understand the strategic dynamics. Turkey wants to make itself more valuable to the alliance in order to partially repair its damaged relations with the US according to Vladimir Danilov in his article for Russia’s New Eastern Outlook online journal. The expert also believes that it can rely on what he described as the “pro-Qatar Taliban group” cultivated by its allies in Doha. The question therefore arises of whether this group is influential enough to quell the general movement’s disagreement with Turkey’s plans. Thus far as evidenced by their statement, it seems that they aren’t.

There might also be another motivation at play as well, and it’s that Turkey believes that this means could most effectively expand its influence in the landlocked country. By controlling/ensuring international access into and out of the Afghan capital, Ankara would become among the most strategic actors in Afghanistan. This could in turn be leveraged for economic ends related to the possibility of reviving the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (LLC) for pioneering a new multi-modal connectivity route with its Pakistani ally across the Caspian and South Caucasus. In practice, this vision represents a branch corridor of the N-CPEC+ proposal for expanding CPEC northwards.

The Taliban presumably doesn’t have any problem with facilitating such trans-regional connectivity since it stands to profit from transit across the territory under its control. The issue then might be that it suspects that Turkey’s control of the Kabul airport could be exploited by NATO and the US in particular to develop a “workaround” to its withdrawal deal whereby private military contractors (PMCs) if not actual special forces could be surreptitiously dispatched to the country after September 11th via that gateway. The Taliban would therefore prefer for the airport to remain under civilian control, not any NATO country’s control like Turkey.

It should be noted that the Taliban’s recent statement on this issue also emphasised the close ties that it has with Turkey. Its exact words were as follows: “Otherwise, Turkey is a great Islamic country. Afghanistan has had historical relations with it. We hope to have close and good relations with them as a new Islamic government is established in the country in future.” It’s thus possible that the Taliban might agree to Turkish civilian control of the airport instead of its NATO-allied military doing the same as part of a compromise with Ankara. The West Asian country, however, might not agree to this since it and its allies fear the airport’s capture by the Taliban.

The best-case scenario is that Ankara agrees to that possible compromise. This would enable it to simultaneously serve its allies’ interests though in a way which doesn’t risk ruining relations with the Taliban and thus impeding the possible revival of the LLC. The Taliban genuinely wants to expand ties with Turkey, but it’s still suspicious of that country’s military plans for the Kabul airport in spite of the speculative influence of what Danilov described as the “pro-Qatar Taliban group”. If this issue can’t be amicably resolved, then the future of Turkish-Taliban ties will become uncertain, adding yet another layer of instability to the country.

The path to a possible compromise might be through Pakistan mediating sensitive discussions between its Turkish and Taliban partners in pursuit of the proposed compromise. Islamabad would also benefit by its allies in Ankara expanding their influence in Afghanistan after the US’ withdrawal, especially with respect to this being leveraged to revive the LLC. The South Asian state should therefore propose the use of its diplomatic services to help reach an amicable resolution to this issue. It’s unclear whether it’ll succeed, but it should still try its best because of all that’s at stake.