A Taliban spokesperson said on Thursday that Turkey should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan under the 2020 accord for the withdrawal of US soldiers, thus rejecting Ankara’s proposal to guard and administer Kabul’s airport after US-led NATO forces leave.
The incident raises severe concerns for the US, other governments, and international organizations with operations in Kabul about how to safely evacuate their employees from the country’s landlocked capital if war breaks out.
It also appeared to dash Ankara’s hopes of using the securing of Kabul airport to help improve ties with Washington – strained by Turkey’s purchase of Russian defense systems – in talks set for Monday between President Joe Biden and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
When asked if the Taliban rejected Turkey’s proposal to keep military in Kabul to monitor and administer the international airport after other foreign soldiers depart, a Taliban spokesman in Doha said that they should leave as well.
“Turkey was a member of NATO forces for the previous 20 years,” Suhail Shaheen told Reuters. “As a result, they should leave from Afghanistan on the basis of the Agreement we reached with the US on February 29, 2020.”
“Otherwise, Turkey is a great Islamic country. Afghanistan has had historical relations with it. We hope to have close and good relations with them as a new Islamic government is established in the country in future,” he added.
The State Department and the Turkish Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke on Thursday with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to “discuss bilateral cooperation and regional issues,” the Pentagon said in a statement, which did not specifically mention Afghanistan.
Under the February 2020 deal secured with the Islamist Taliban under former President Donald Trump, all U.S. forces were to be out of Afghanistan by May 1.
But Biden said in April that the pullout would be completed by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States that prompted the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of the Taliban government that sheltered the group.
Turkish officials say they made the Kabul airport proposal at a NATO meeting in May when the United States and its partners agreed to a plan to withdraw their forces by Sept. 11 after 20 years of backing the Afghan government in a war against the Taliban.
With violence raging, many U.S. lawmakers and current and former officials fear the departure of the foreign forces and stalled peace talks are pushing Afghanistan into an all-out civil war that could return the Taliban to power.
According to the Pentagon, the United States has completed more over half of its pullout. Turkey currently has the largest foreign military commitment in Afghanistan, with around 500 soldiers training security forces.
Due to security concerns, Australia’s embassy was closed last month. As a result of the Taliban’s effective rejection of Turkey’s pledge to safeguard the airport, other countries’ missions may be forced to close.
The development also puts the Biden administration in a bind, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken just stated at a congressional hearing that the US will continue a diplomatic presence in Kabul.