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Turkey welcomes 'positive messages' from Taliban

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Turkey is now focused on safe evacuations from Kabul airport as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praises Turkey's role in the effort.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid (C) gestures as he addresses the first press conference in Kabul on Aug. 17, 2021 following the Taliban stunning takeover of Afghanistan.

Turkey welcomed Tuesday the “positive messages” that have come from the Taliban, saying that it is now waiting to see them translated into action.

“I would like to acknowledge that the messages that come from the Taliban to the foreigners, to diplomatic missions, and to its people have been positive so far. Hopefully, they’d be translated into action,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu said at a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Saffadi in Amman.

Cavusoglu’s remarks came as the Taliban announced a "general amnesty" for all government officials on Tuesday and urged them to return to work. Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban's cultural commission who made the announcement, also said that women would also be allowed to play a role in government “in line with sharia law.”

Cavusoglu remained vague on whether Ankara was still upholding its offer of maintaining the security of the strategic Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul after the withdrawal of NATO troops. 

“We are [looking at] what sort of a future Afghanistan has, what can we do to help?” he said, echoing earlier remarks on Turkey’s commitment to the peace and stability in “brother” Afghanistan. “We as Turkey have always been one of the top supporters of Afghanistan’s stability, peace and economic development. We have never sent combatant forces to Afghanistan. Our role has been running and providing the security of the military part of the airport.”

“All this will be debated — but first the situation in the country needs to calm down,” he said, repeating Ankara’s line that it continued dialogue with all sides, including the Taliban. 

On Monday, Reuters and Bloomberg quoted two security forces who said that the Turkish offer of the airport has now been dropped after the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital and formed a transitional government. The sources stated that Turkey is ready to provide “security and technical support” if the Taliban requests it.

“At this stage, the process of Turkish soldiers taking up control of the airport has automatically been dropped," Reuters quoted an official as saying. But the pro-governmental Sabah reported that there was yet no official decision to shelve plans for the airport.

“The initial Turkish plan is no longer a realistic one,” Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, told Al-Monitor. Ulgen, a former diplomat, explained that the initial plan, at the final stage of talks with the United States, would be based on the invitation of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country two days ago.

“Today, as the Taliban has de facto control of Kabul, it needs to be the Taliban who extends the request and this looks unlikely.” The Taliban has asked Turkey to remove its military forces from Afghanistan by September and has so far turned a deaf ear to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls to meet the Taliban leadership.

Ulgen also pointed out that Turkey made the offer as a gesture to curry favor with Washington. “But today, the stability of Afghanistan is of much lower relevance to the decision-makers in Washington, who’d want to turn over the responsibility of ensuring the Afghan stability to regional powers such as Russia and China,” he said.

“Moreover, initially Turkey wanted financial and logistical support from the United States and NATO for the role, which is no longer possible,” Ulgen said. “If Turkey still wants to carry a role in managing the strategic airport — and we read statements that it does — a new assessment needs to be made on the pros and cons. This would be a complicated assessment indeed, including the question on whether to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban and just what Turkey would get in return for keeping its forces there.”

The government’s Afghan policy — further aggravated by the influx of Afghan refugees — has become an increasingly explosive issue both in Turkish politics and among the public.

Devlet Bahceli, Nationalist Movement Party leader and Erdogan’s main ally, said it was “unthinkable” that the Turkish forces would leave Afghanistan as the country has vital strategic importance for and historical bonds with Turkey. On the other hand, Utku Cakirozer from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) called Tuesday for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish forces and embassy personnel from Afghanistan, echoing CHP spokesperson Faik Oztrak, who said that Turkey should not rush in when other countries were rushing out. 

“We are doing our best and try to ensure that the people who want to leave can leave — not only our own citizens but those of other countries,” Cavusoglu said. 

Hikmet Cetin, an ex-minister of foreign affairs and NATO’s former senior civilian representative in Afghanistan in 2004-2006, told Turkey’s OdaTV that he helped Rengin Dadfar Spanta, the former foreign minister under Hamid Karzai, escape from Kabul on a Turkish plane. 

On Sunday, Spanta called his old friend Cetin to say that he had arranged his escape from Kabul on a civilian plane, but it was not authorized to take off. “My life is in danger,” he told Cetin, who called both Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to ensure that Spanta was taken to a Turkish plane along with Foreign Minister Muhammed Hanif Atmar.

Later Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg thanked Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom for their key roles “in securing the airport.” The alliance was now working to ensure the safety of NATO's remaining civilian personnel and Afghan employees in Afghanistan, Stoltenberg told reporters after a meeting of the North Atlantic Council.

Turkey has kept its embassy open but relocated it to the Kabul airport on Saturday, Aug. 14. Though some politicians and Foreign Ministry officials initially wanted the embassy to be closed and diplomats brought home safely, the final decision was to keep the embassy open, both to help with the evacuation and to maintain a close eye on the situation, including the Afghans trying to flee the country and cross to Turkey via Iran.

On Sunday Erdogan expressed the need to step up diplomatic and security measures in the face of what he called a “growing migration wave of Afghans” arriving to Turkey through Iran.

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