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Turkey begins pulling troops from Kabul airport as US deadline looms

Ankara's proposal to keep troops at Kabul airport appears dead in the water, at least for now.
British and Canadian soldiers stand guard near a canal in the late hours of Aug. 22, 2021, as Afghans wait outside the foreign military-controlled part of the airport in Kabul

Turkey has begun withdrawing its troops from Kabul airport, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced Wednesday, as the US military aims to wrap up its evacuation mission in less than a week.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Tuesday again rejected Turkey’s proposal to leave troops at the airport, saying the Taliban is capable of dealing with airport security on its own.

Still, Ankara appears to be leaving open the possibility of continuing to have Turkish personnel operate there. Reuters cited two Turkish officials Wednesday as saying the Taliban had requested Turkish support for running the airport.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to leave Ankara’s force of some 500 to 600 troops at Kabul airport after the NATO and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but that plan was thrown into disarray by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul and rejection of any foreign military presence.

Biden administration officials had praised Turkey’s proposal as vital to maintaining foreign diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, including potentially Washington’s. Discussions were moved to the back burner in recent weeks, however, and as the Taliban reached Kabul earlier this month, the United States evacuated its embassy.

Senior Pentagon officials have not discussed the security proposal with Turkish officials in weeks, a US official told Al-Monitor. Talks on Washington’s support for a prolonged mission, which included potential funding, were never completed.

With the looming departure of Turkish troops, Ankara’s six-year security mission at the airstrip appears to be coming to an abrupt end.

Washington’s interest in Hamid Karzai International Airport is now as an exit corridor for those Americans who aren't able to leave before the evacuation effort ends Tuesday.

The Taliban have agreed to allow US personnel safe passage to Kabul to evacuate even after the White House’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw the military, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday.

"There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years and want to leave and have been unable to do so,” the top US diplomat said during a press conference, adding, “That effort will continue every day past Aug. 31.”

Blinken discussed “continuing cooperation” in Afghanistan with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu by phone Tuesday, as Biden administration officials continue to bet on the Taliban leadership’s desire to forge ties with foreign governments.

Still, the fate of any future role for Turkish personnel at the airport remains largely between Ankara and the Taliban.

After Aug. 31, security at Kabul’s airport “will not be the United States’ responsibility anymore,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.

Taliban leadership is in talks with Turkish officials in hope of establishing good relations, the spokesman for the group's political office, Mohammed Naeem, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu News Agency on Wednesday.

“There are very active efforts underway on the part of regional countries to see whether they can play a role in keeping the airport open once our military mission leaves, or as necessary, reopening it if it closes for some period of time. And that’s happening very actively right now,” Blinken told reporters.

Still, Blinken left open the possibility that the US government might retain a presence in Afghanistan. “With regard to our own potential presence going forward after the 31st, we’re looking at a number of options,” he said.

Asked about future efforts to evacuate US and Afghan personnel after the deadline, Kirby said, “I don’t anticipate a military role in that.”

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