The Turkish National Defense Ministry said on Wednesday it has begun withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, where they have been stationed since 2002 under authorization from the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“Turkish Armed Forces are returning to our homeland with the pride of successfully fulfilling the task entrusted to them,” the Defense Ministry said. Among other tasks, the Turkish military was in charge of security at Kabul’s international airport.
The Kabul airport remains a chaotic and deadly disaster area, with terrified Afghans walking through sewage to evade whip-wielding Taliban patrols and evacuation flights leaving mostly empty because the gates are blocked by armed militants, so it sounds a little odd for the Turkish government to proudly boast of a job well done.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said the military evacuation began after “evaluating the current situation and conditions” in Afghanistan. It stated that the military had evacuated 1,129 Turkish civilians by the time withdrawal began.
In July, Turkey offered to take responsibility for security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul after other NATO forces withdrew. About 500 Turkish troops were stationed in Afghanistan at the time.
Turkey argued that, as NATO’s only Muslim-majority nation and the only one to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with the Taliban, it would be well suited to provide airport security for what was then envisioned as a hybrid government, rather than an outright Taliban conquest of the entire country.
The Taliban firmly stated that it expected Turkey to withdraw its forces along with the rest of NATO. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid repeated that demand on Tuesday.
“We want good relations with Turkey, but we don’t want their soldiers in Afghanistan. There is no need for Turkish troops in Afghanistan, we are more than capable of securing the Kabul airport ourselves,” Mujahid said.
According to Middle East Eye when it reported Mujahid’s statement, the “overwhelming feeling in Ankara” was that “a senior-level meeting between Turkish and Taliban officials would reconcile the parties,” but apparently that overwhelming feeling has passed.
The Taliban did, however, request Turkish technical support to keep the Kabul airport running after its troops have withdrawn. A senior Turkish official acknowledged the request on Tuesday but expressed some misgivings, saying it would be a “risky job” for Turks to work at the airport without Turkish military protection.
“We are welcoming the messages from the leaders of the Taliban with cautious optimism for now,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday. “Not the Taliban’s words but its activities, actions and the steps it will take will determine how the process ahead of us in Afghanistan will be shaped.”
Turkey refused Europe’s call to accept Afghan refugees on Tuesday, stating that it already hosts five million refugees from the Syrian civil war and cannot handle any more. Instead, Turkey deployed more troops to its border with Iran to repel the growing tide of refugees from Afghanistan.