ANKARA: Turkey is offering to protect Kabul’s strategic airport after US forces leave in what experts view as a high-risk bid to improve Ankara’s strained ties with Washington.

Keeping the air hub safe from advancing Taliban forces became a major issue after US President Joe Biden called an end to Washington’s 20-year involvement by ordering all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next month.

Hamid Karzai Internati­onal Airport offers the safest route for embassy staff and humanitarian aid to reach the war-torn country. Its fall could leave Afghanistan larg­ely cut off from the world.

Ankara’s surprise proposal gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a chance to build a rapport with Biden during their first meeting at a Nato summit in June.

The offer meets two of the Turkish leader’s objectives: warm chilly ties with Western allies and avert an influx of refugees by keeping aid routes open.

“Turkey has a vested interest in Afghanistan’s stability,” said Magdalena Kirc­hn­er, Afghanistan country director at German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stift­ung.

Turkish officials play down the diplomatic aspects of the mission and stress the importance of relieving the suffering in Afghanistan.

“Our objective is to make sure Afghanistan is not closed to the outside world, that it is not isolated,” a Turkish diplomatic source said.

The United Nations this month said 18 million people — or half the Afghan population — needed assistance, while half of all children under the age of five suffered from acute malnutrition.

While Washington still views Turkey as an important ally in a volatile part of the world, relations have been bedevilled by disputes, including Ankara’s acquisition of a Russian missile defence system. Washington sanctioned Ankara for the purchase last year.

“The main factor behind the airport proposal... is Turkish-American relations: Ankara hopes to regain favour with Washington after a string of diplomatic crises,” analyst Salim Cevik wrote in a paper for Germany’s SWP think tank.

A security source in Ankara said Turkish personnel have been “operating the airport for the past six years” and would remain past August if an agreement with the US and other countries is reached.

In return, Ankara wants US funding and logistical support, the source added.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2021

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