Turkey and Afghanistan


(Credit: The Hudson Institute)

By Dr. Richard Weitz

11/21/2011 – On November 1, 2011, Turkey officially extended its command of the all-important region of Afghanistan’s Kabul region for another year.

Furthermore, Istanbul hosted two vital multinational meetings on November 1 and 2 designed to support international peace efforts regarding Afghanistan.

The first gathering was a tripartite summit of Presidents Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Asif Zardari of Pakistan and Abdullah Gul of Turkey.

The second, the Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia conference, involved officials from these three countries as well as from many other neighboring and supporting countries seeking to establish a benign regional security environment for ending the war.

These military, economic and diplomatic initiatives underscore Turkey’s important role in Afghanistan, which may increase as the NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in coming years.

Turkey lives in the neighborhood which means that its role in Afghanistan is more constant than the Western players currently deploying force in the country. (Credit Image: Bigstock)
Turkey lives in the neighborhood which means that its role in Afghanistan is more constant than the Western players currently deploying force in the country. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

Turkey’s military contributions to Afghanistan have been channeled through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), created by the December 2001 Bonn Agreement as a means to provide security while the new post-Taliban government rebuilt Afghanistan’s military and police forces. NATO took charge of ISAF in subsequent years and expanded its area of operations in stages until it officially covered all of Afghanistan.

An independent U.S.-only command focusing on counterterrorist operations also has operated in Afghanistan. Turkey has twice led ISAF: first between June 2002 and February 2003, and then between February and November 2005. Turkey has also played a major role in various ISAF regional commands and has led the Force’s Regional Command Capital in the Kabul region. Turkey extended its command of the ISAF’s Kabul region for another year on November 1. 2011.

Turkey initially deployed 276 troops into Afghanistan in late 2001 during the post-9/11 coalition military operations in that country, but this figure rose to 1,300 in June 2002, when Turkey assumed command of ISAF, then charged with providing security in Kabul and running the city’s international airport. Turkey currently has more than 1,800 troops in Afghanistan assigned to various non-combat missions.

While the Turkish government has refused to deploy its troops on explicit counterinsurgency or counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan, its military forces within ISAF have helped train members of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in these tactics.

In this regard, Turkish instructors can draw on the experience the Turkish military has gained in its many years of conducting experience counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), al-Qaeda, and other militant groups.

Turkish troops serve primarily in the Kabul region, but also can be found in several Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRT) across Afghanistan. In Kabul, Turkish troops train hundreds of Afghan soldiers and assist in reconstruction projects. They also patrol the city to reassure citizens about their security. Turkey also collaborates with other NATO members such as France and Italy in a joint Kabul headquarters to promote security in the capital area. In November 2006, moreover, Turkey established a PRT in Wardak, located 40 kilometers west of Kabul. Its mixed contingent of civilian and military personnel train the Afghan Police, improve judicial administration, develop public infrastructure, and support projects aimed at raising the quality of life of the local population.

The Turkish government has resisted American pressure to increase its military activities in Afghanistan. During Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House on December 7, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama requested that the Turkish government deploy combat troops to Afghanistan.

In declining the proposal, Erdoğan and other Turkish officials explained that they wanted to focus Turkey’s military contributions on training Afghan security forces, undertaking economic reconstruction projects, and supporting other non-combat missions.

Alluding to Turkey’s value as a potential mediator between the Afghan government and its adversaries, Turkish President Abdullah Gul argued that, “If Turkey sends combat forces to Afghanistan, the power that everybody respects — including [the] Taliban — will disappear.”

The Obama administration eventually accepted this logic. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates subsequently stressed to the media that the Obama administration  was “extremely pleased with Turkey’s contributions in Afghanistan” because U.S. officials “pay high importance to personnel that can train [Afghan] individuals in the areas of military and security.”

Turkey has already trained several thousand Afghan security personnel in Afghanistan and hundreds of additional Afghan soldiers and police officers inside Turkey. NATO suffers from a shortfall in such training capabilities.

Encouraging the Turkish government to continue its training efforts, along with its regional diplomatic initiatives aimed at reconciling Afghanistan and Pakistan and its economic reconstruction projects designed to promote political stability through economic growth and development, offers a superior means by which Turkey can continue to promote Afghanistan’s post-conflict reconstruction.

In recent years, Turkey has complemented its longstanding military and economic contributions to Afghanistan with diplomatic initiatives aimed at creating a favorable environment for an Afghan-led peace process. This focus has dovetailed well with the Obama administration’s Afghan-Pak war strategy, which tries to pursue three mutually reinforcing tracks: “fight, talk, and build,” signifying the need for a favorable regional diplomatic framework for ending the conflict along with increased military and economic  support for Afghanistan.

Many of Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives have concentrated on improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan—or at least keeping their lines of communication open during their frequent bilateral disputes. Like the Obama administration, and other NATO government, Turkish officials argue that any enduring solution to the conflict will require better relations between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In particular, Pakistani support is needed for inducing the Afghan Taliban to end its insurgency since the guerrillas use Pakistani territory as a base of operations.

Turkish officials and experts argue that their country has distinct advantages in this mediation role, including historically good relations with both countries, a shared Islamic faith, and a lack of local proxies or other means and incentives to interfere in their internal affairs.

Turkey also has long-established good ties with Pakistan dating from their common alignment with the Western camp during the Cold War and their common moderate Muslim governments. Their military-to-military exchanges, which include a diverse range of bilateral and multilateral exercises, have continued to this day. In turn, Pakistan may have helped Turkey improve its relations with China and discouraged its Afghan Taliban allies from attacking Turkish troops in ISAF.

Since April 2007, Turkey has hosted six Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Forum meetings involving senior Turkish, Afghan, and Pakistani government officials. These sessions began as presidential summits but have since expanded to include senior foreign, intelligence, interior, and other civilian and military officials. Similarly, while their initial focus was on promoting  regional security and counterterrorism collaboration among the three governments, they have since broadened to include economic and other forms of non-military cooperation. For example, at the January 25, 2010, trilateral summit, the three governments endorsed initiatives to promote the reconciliation and reintegration of Taliban members who agreed to cease fighting and engage in solely nonviolent activities. They also discussed cooperating on health, education, and other socioeconomic projects.

Turkey has sought to move beyond mere declarations and have the parties establish concrete confidence-building measures among the parties. As part of this trilateral process, Turkey organized in early 2011 the first a joint military exercise (on urban warfare) involving all three armies. A trilateral direct video-telephone conference line among the three presidents has also been established. There is also a Trilateral Minds Platform whose members include academics and members of the media and thinks tanks. In addition, Turkey has started an Istanbul Forum that brings together representatives of the chambers of commerce in each of the three countries, which helps promote cooperation among their national business leaders and other private sector actors to complement the government-to-government meetings. Turkish officials are now considering initiating contact with the Afghan Taliban in support of its peace mediation efforts. Specifically, they are assessing a proposal of the Afghan High Peace Council to allow the Taliban to establish some kind of representation on Turkish soil. Afghan President Karzai has endorsed the idea as helping to facilitate peace negotiations regional efforts.

In its mediation efforts, Turkey has encountered many of the same challenges that have bedeviled similar U.S. and other third-party facilitators. These obstacles include the region’s porous borders, which facilitates the flow of fighters and drugs; poor governance; regional rivalries; transnational organized criminal groups that have an interest in sustaining the conflict; week national governments and security forces have facing major Islamist insurgents; and limited and declining commitments by external powers to support regionally driven peace programs.

In addition, the Afghan-Pakistan conflict has elements of a civil war in which the Taliban enjoys some support among the large Pashtun community that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. For this reason, regionally based peace efforts will invariably prove of limited effectiveness unless accompanied by complementary developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan such as more effective governance, better counterinsurgency operations, and a greater desire on the part of the insurgents to lay down their arms and reenter their civilian societies. The Istanbul conference communique, like other international gatherings, stressed that any peace efforts must be led by the Afghan conflict parties.

Regional rivalries have also impeded Turkey’s peace efforts. While Russia, China, and the West now generally support the same goals, Turkey has found it just as difficult as other countries to manage the India-Pakistan rivalry. The Indians complained when they were not invited to the trilateral summits between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey, as well as other Turkey-hosted gatherings on Afghanistan. Indians interpreted their exclusion, as well as Turkish diplomats’ seeming preoccupation with improving bilateral economic ties between Turkey and India, as a sign that Turkey does not respect India’s legitimate national security interest in Afghanistan.

Whatever limitations on its role as a potential mediator in Afghanistan, Turkey has been a natural partner with NATO, the EU, and the United States in Afghanistan.

The European Union special representative to Afghanistan, Vygaudas Usackas , has praised Turkey’s support for regional peace efforts and termed EU-Turkish cooperation regarding “most exemplary.”  This bond has helped sustain close ties between Turkey and the West even when its government pursues policies towards Iran or Israel unwelcome in many Western capitals. Even if Turkey’s diplomatic efforts regarding Afghanistan fail, Ankara could well receive credit for trying.

In addition to sharing the general Western goals in Afghanistan and contributing troops to the NATO-led ISAF, Turkey has unique cultural and geographic assets regarding Afghanistan that are welcome in the West as well as the region. Turkey is the only NATO country having a Muslim-majority population, a valuable attribute for a Western-led military operation in a Muslim-majority country (Afghanistan) and region (Central Asia). Turkey’s location is also pivotal since Afghanistan, unlike the former Yugoslavia, is very much “out-of-area” for an alliance whose military operations have focused primary on Europe, North America, and the ocean between them. Incirlik air base and other facilities in Turkey have served as important transit centers for helping transport NATO troops and other items to Afghanistan.

Turkey, which has the second highest number of troops of any NATO member after the United States, accrues certain advantages within the alliance from its prominent role in Afghanistan. The other allies acknowledge Turkey’s unique assets and contributions. From 2003 to 2006, a former Turkish Foreign Minister, Hikmet Cetin, served as NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. Conversely, from the perspective of potential costs, an alliance defeat in Afghanistan would damage Turkey’s strongest security link with most European countries.

At the same time, several factors have constrained Turkey’s engagement in Afghanistan. These include a concern about becoming bogged down in an unwinnable war, alienation for U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fears of antagonizing fellow Muslims by appearing to join a Western (Christian) crusade. These concerns, manifested in low popular support within Turkey for Turkey’s limited involvement in the war, have made the Turkish government cautious about its level of involvement, especially in the military realm.

Public opposition to the AKP’s foreign policy might grow now that the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbor” policy is in tatters, with Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iran, Armenia, Israel, and other nearby countries deteriorating in recent months.