ANKARA: The foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar have reviewed plans for the return to normal operations of Kabul’s international airport in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on Monday discussed options for their countries to jointly run the airport and ways to deliver further humanitarian aid to the Afghan people under conditions agreeable with the Taliban.
Turkish troops have guarded the Afghan capital’s airport for around six years, Red Crescent groups from Turkey and Qatar have been working to deliver aid to Afghans, and a Turkish overseas education foundation has kept its schools open for girls and boys.
During a joint press conference in Doha, Sheikh Mohammed said Qatar and Turkey were ready to control Kabul airport if the Taliban agreed to it.
“Qatar and Turkey are continuously working with the interim government in Afghanistan to reach an agreement to open the airport (so it can function) normally,” he added.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Doha on Monday for two days of talks to rebuild ties.
In November, the US signed an agreement with Qatar to designate the Gulf country as the power to protect American interests in Afghanistan, considering it a trusted mediator. Qatar and Turkey played significant roles in the evacuation process out of Afghanistan after the Taliban swept to power.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, told Arab News that Turkey and Qatar could cooperate on calling for limited waivers on US-imposed asset freezes against the Taliban, and leverage their respective bargaining power in Western capitals to achieve that outcome.
He said: “Turkey and Qatar can also coordinate on alleviating Afghanistan’s food security crisis, as Qatar’s experience working with the World Food Program in theaters such as Yemen, could be effective in Afghanistan.”
Ramani noted that Turkey had also been ramping up food aid shipments, such as wheat, to Afghanistan over the past month.
“Neither Turkey nor Qatar is likely to provide the Taliban with recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate authority, but both will encourage engagement with the new Islamic emirate,” he added.
During Monday’s meeting, Cavusoglu urged the international community to engage in dialogue with the Taliban by “distinguishing” between the political and humanitarian aspects.
Zalmai Nishat, research fellow at the University of Sussex’s Asia Center, said the Taliban wanted Turkey to get involved in the operationalization of Kabul airport alongside Qatar.
He told Arab News: “From a historical perspective, Turkey is seen as the successor of the Ottoman empire and is respected by the people of Afghanistan, with the memories of the Caliphate. Also, Turkey is an ally of the US and the EU being a key country within NATO.”
Nishat pointed out that during peace talks between the former government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, control of Kabul airport had been a critical issue and the parties had looked upon Turkey as an ideal partner.
“Ankara must design a robust policy about Afghanistan, which would enable it to put pressure on the Taliban and their supporters to create a political system where diverse ethnic communities of Afghanistan feel themselves at home and feel included in the political system, with a fair representation,” he added.
Turkey, allegedly having established intelligence contacts with some Taliban-linked militia in the country, also has strong historical and ethnic ties in Afghanistan, with its non-combat troops on the ground in the past as a member of the NATO alliance.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute, told Arab News that the Taliban needed legitimacy at this stage by establishing themselves as credible actors through the channels of Qatar and Turkey and in doing so help connect the group with the rest of the world.
He said: “Turkey is still looking to position itself as a connection between the Taliban and the outside world. Qatar comes first, with closer ties with the Taliban historically and politically. Turkey would come after Qatar in this political play, but the two countries can play a critical role in maintaining the security of flights in the short term.”
In the medium term, Cagaptay added, Turkey had significant soft power on the ground in Afghanistan that had been developed since the beginning of the early years of the Turkish republic, and it could be used to reach out to Afghan society through its local ties.