Very few details emerged from Joe Biden and Recep Tayyip Erdogan first face-to-face meeting of the new US presidency – although the Turkish president was clearly pleased enough to say this week that it had opened “a new era” in relations between the two countries. But a few days after, America’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told the press the two had agreed that, once the US withdraws from Afghanistan later this year, it will be Turkey that will protect and secure Kabul’s airport.
It was a small detail, overlooked in the bigger story of the disagreement over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. Yet it offered the first glimpse of what America’s post-withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan might be.
Ever since Biden announced that America would end its longest war by September 11 this year, the US has been scrambling to work out how to remove US troops but keep a security footprint, so that the Taliban don’t simply overrun the Western-backed Afghan government. It is a difficult task, because the two-decade long conflict has relied on soldiers, CIA operatives, the assistance of allies and Afghans on the ground.
If all foreign troops leave alongside the US – what America’s secretary of state Antony Blinken called in April an “in together, out together” strategy – that leaves very few soldiers to protect the Afghan government and no real way to support it should the Taliban seek its overthrow. What Turkey’s role appears to suggest is a way to leave Afghanistan but retain a footprint – get Nato allies to shoulder the security burden inside the country, and get regional allies to host US troops abroad.
That may seem like an acceptable fudge in Washington. But the actual result would be to simply transfer the target US soldiers carry on their backs to someone else. If the only way to stop a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is to simply pass America’s war on to its allies, all that does is delay the day of reckoning. It is a post-withdrawal strategy doomed to fail.
Yet, in truth, America will have to try it, because leaving Afghanistan completely is not an option. Afghanistan today is absolutely awash with violence. Very little of it makes the news, but the war of attrition between the Taliban and Afghan security forces is, if anything, escalating ahead of America’s departure.
On June 14, the day Biden and Erdogan met, the Taliban killed 10 soldiers, four police officers and kidnapped four others. On the day of Sullivan’s announcement, two police officers were shot dead in Kabul. Month on month, the violence is escalating; according to numbers from The New York Times, more pro-government security forces and civilians have been killed so far this month than at any point over the past two years.
The Taliban have made no secret of their desire to return to power, whether through an endless war of attrition that eventually collapses the Afghan government, or an outright civil war, or – perhaps the best-case scenario, although many Afghans will be horrified by the prospect – a peace agreement that leads to power-sharing.
Without some presence of foreign troops – and Kabul airport is key, being the main entry point for any reinforcements into the landlocked country – there may be little to stop a descent into civil war as early as this year.
So the US and its allies are in the invidious position of attempting a strategy that will surely fail. Already, the Taliban have issued threats and key American allies are walking away. The day after Sullivan’s announcement, a Taliban spokesman responded by saying that if Turkey maintained a military presence, “Afghans will not allow it and will view them as invaders.”
If Ankara hopes its status as a Muslim country will offer it some protection, it ought to consider what happened to Pakistan after 2001, when Pervez Musharraf backed the US’s invasion. The blowback was immediately, serious and sustained, as groups inside Pakistan that were supportive of the Taliban began attacking Pakistani soldiers. Neither a shared border nor a shared faith spared Pakistan.
Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, is well aware of the history. On the day the Taliban threatened Turkey, he ruled out any American troops staying in his country and followed it up with an opinion article in the Washington Post, referencing that period and warning hosting American troops would mean “Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again.”
Without Pakistan’s bases, the US will have to look elsewhere, most likely Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both on Afghanistan’s northern border and both with military bases previously used by the US. Whoever agrees – and accepts whatever inducements or backroom arm-twisting is offered – will have to squarely face the impossible challenge put by Khan this week: “If the United States couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?”
As America desperately seeks a post-withdrawal strategy, its allies will be wondering this: if the US passes on its longest war, will Afghanistan become their longest war, too?
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.