Turkish, US officials discuss Afghan airport security plans

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish and U.S. military officials met in Turkey’s capital on Thursday to discuss plans for Turkish troops to continue securing Kabul’s airport after the withdrawal of the U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan.

Turkey, NATO’s only majority-Muslim member, has offered to protect and run the Hamid Karzai International airport — the main gateway into Afghanistan — after the alliance pulls out of the country. The country, which has around 500 non-combat troops in Afghanistan, is however, seeking U.S. and other allies’ support for the mission.

Last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit, that Turkey was looking for “diplomatic, logistic and financial assistance” from the United States to protect and operate the airport. Turkey also wanted Pakistan and Hungary to be involved in the mission, he said.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a technical delegation from the United States had arrived for talks.

“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,” Akar said Thursday. “Discussions on this matter are continuing. No decisions have been reached for now.”

Akar said: “We want to achieve the best result for the interests of our country and for those of Afghanistan. That’s what we are working for. Our aim is to continue working for the security, peace and welfare of our Afghan brothers.”

Critics see Turkey’s offer to operate the airport as being part of an effort by Erdogan’s government to mend ties with the United States which have deteriorated over an array of disagreements. Those have centered on Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons and U.S. support to Syrian Kurdish fighters which Ankara says are linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. They question the safety of the Turkish non-combat forces there.

“Mr. Erdogan, let whoever brought Afghanistan to this situation, pick up the pieces,” Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition, nationalist Good Party, said in parliament Wednesday.

“Don’t be so eager to sacrifice your own soldier to save the life of an American soldier,” she said.

Around 2,300-3,500 remaining U.S. troops and roughly 7,000 allied NATO forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending nearly 20 years of military engagement. There are concerns that the Afghan government and its security forces may be ill-prepared for the withdrawal and that the country may descend into chaos.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until ousted by a U.S.-led coalition after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America. In recent weeks Taliban fighters have overrun several districts in southern and northern Afghanistan, convincing government security forces to surrender and seizing their weapons and military vehicles.