The United States on Thursday hailed Turkey's promise to secure Kabul's airport once U.S. forces leave, saying the two nations' presidents agreed at the NATO summit to work out the logistics.
Turkey will play a leading role in providing security at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport after NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. President Joe Biden's national security advisor said on Thursday.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden – who met in Brussels on Monday after tensions between the NATO allies – had a "detailed discussion" about the fate of the airport, said Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan told reporters that during their first bilateral meeting on Monday at the NATO summit, Biden and Erdoğan "agreed that they would work together" to ensure the Turkish mission is established ahead of the U.S. president's Sept. 11 deadline to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Erdoğan sought certain forms of U.S. support to secure the airport and Biden committed to providing that support, Sullivan said.
"President Erdoğan expressed satisfaction with that, and the two of them tasked their teams just to work out the final details, but the clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute just that," added Sullivan.
Speaking to reporters on Monday at the end of a series of meetings with NATO leaders, Erdoğan said Turkey is seeking Pakistan and Hungary's involvement in the new mission in Afghanistan following the departure of the U.S.-led NATO force.
Turkey's potential role in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the planned U.S. pullout could serve as an area of cooperation. Erdoğan also said that Turkey is the only country that can be trusted to continue the process after the withdrawal.
Turkey, whose forces in Afghanistan have always been of noncombatant troops, is reported to have offered to guard Hamid Karzai International Airport as questions remain on how security will be assured along major transport routes and at the airport, which is the main gateway to the capital Kabul.
The security of the airport is crucial for the operation of diplomatic missions out of Afghanistan as Western forces pull out.
Biden has ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of America's longest war, believing that no more can be achieved.
Even U.S. officials have acknowledged concerns about whether the Kabul government can withstand a potential offensive by the Taliban – and the airport is considered crucial to stability.
Turkey, as a Muslim-majority nation but also a member of NATO, has played a key role in Afghanistan.
Last week, a Taliban spokesman said Turkey should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the 2020 deal for the pullout of U.S. forces but Sullivan said the Taliban comments did not deter the "detailed and effective" security plan the United States was putting together.
"Obviously we take seriously the concern that Taliban or other elements in Afghanistan will attack the Western or the international presence...We do not believe that what the Taliban has said publicly should or will deter the efforts underway right now to establish that security presence," he said.
Asked about contingency planning, Sullivan said the U.S. is also mulling the possibility of using security contractors with "extensive experience" in Afghanistan at the airport, but maintained Washington is "feeling good about where we are in terms of the planning with the Turks."
"But, of course, we are obviously also conducting contingency planning in the event that either Turkey can’t proceed, although we have every expectation they will, or can only proceed in a more limited fashion," he said.
With efforts to resolve the dispute over Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, which led Washington to impose sanctions on Turkey's arms industry last year, the airport plan may offer a rare opportunity to build goodwill and trust.
The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for the PKK terrorist organization’s Syrian wing, the YPG, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a U.S. court case against a Turkish state bank.
Ankara first made the proposal to guard and run the airport at a NATO meeting in May when the U.S. and its partners agreed on a plan to withdraw troops.
After two decades of war, forces from 36 countries involved in NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan are set to pull out of the country in coordination with the U.S. troop withdrawal by Sept. 11.
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