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Turkey Seeks A Stable Afghanistan As It Bolsters Border Against Refugees

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United States is not the only nation that's been racing to evacuate its citizens, military personnel and local support staff from Afghanistan. Yesterday, Turkey announced it had completed its withdrawal from Kabul, but the country could yet play a role there. Turkey's president said Friday that his government may strike a deal with the Taliban to remain in Afghanistan by securing Kabul's civilian airport.

For years, Turkey has been one of the destinations for people fleeing Afghanistan, but that path is narrowing now. Reporter Durrie Bouscaren joins us from Istanbul now to tell us more. Durrie, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN: Thanks. Hi, Michele.

MARTIN: So let's just go to the map for a minute. Turkey is not an immediate neighbor. I mean, that would be Pakistan and Iran. So what are Turkey's strategic interests in Afghanistan? How do they see the Taliban takeover?

BOUSCAREN: I mean, a lot of people, when they flee to Turkey, they go over the mountains in Iran. So they're crossing two borders. But Turkey wants a stable Afghanistan to avoid creating a situation where a lot of refugees are needing to leave the country at once. Beyond that, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems open to working with the Taliban under the right conditions, almost as an intermediary with the West. And I called Soner Cagaptay. He's an author and expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he told me that Turkey wants to play a role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, but the Taliban isn't really going for it.

SONER CAGAPTAY: You know, whereas some in Turkey and religious political circles are sympathetic towards Taliban, I would say the Taliban sympathy towards Turkey is at a level of zero. I think when the Taliban sees Turkey, it sees a country not very different than the U.K. or U.S. in terms of political values.

BOUSCAREN: Erdogan initially offered Turkish troops to remain at the Kabul airport as a small presence to provide security, but the Taliban initially turned that down. They requested technical help to run the airport. And they're in talks with Turkish officials. Erdogan says he won't decide until it's clear who's running the country. But when Turkey evacuated its military, they left a small number of technical personnel there.

MARTIN: So let's go back to the map for a minute. You just told us that, in the past, Afghans have gone through Iran to get to Turkey. And of course, over this past week, we've seen images of desperate people trying to get out of the country and evacuation flights. So are they still doing what you told us about earlier - going through Iran to get to Turkey?

BOUSCAREN: Right. Well, that's what's been so dramatic. I mean, Turkey has really shut down these routes in just the past couple of months. I was in Van, a city near the eastern border back in June. And back then, we were estimating that about a thousand people were crossing the border every day. Now, Turkey is scaling up patrols. And they're building an extension of a border wall along the Iran border.

When I went to an Afghan neighborhood in Istanbul this week, I met Mohammed Ayoub. He's a former engineer from Kabul who now owns a grocery store. And he says that he had hoped to bring his relatives to Turkey legally, but now there's no clear way to apply for a visa when you're still in Afghanistan. And there's nothing else that he knows he can do.

MOHAMMED AYOUB: (Speaking Farsi).

BOUSCAREN: He's saying that everyday people had no idea that Kabul's government would fall that quickly. And he says he's worried because if things get more violent, his relatives might be forced to leave the country illegally. And that's so much more dangerous.

MARTIN: So I wanted to ask you about that. Why is Turkey closing its doors to refugees now when so many people want to flee and some people have relatives there?

BOUSCAREN: Turkish officials point out that they've taken in almost 4 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. And this comes as Turkey's economy has taken a big downturn in the past three years. Public opinion here is really souring. And opposition politicians are using this to hit back at Erdogan because they know that it works. Afghans can still technically apply for visas to Turkey, but any large-scale refugee program here is really unlikely given the current climate.

MARTIN: That's reporter Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul. Durrie, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

BOUSCAREN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.