BACKGROUND: A meeting of NATO defense ministers took place in Istanbul on February 4-5. The discussions focused on how to reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and implement the political-military recommendations adopted at the January 28 London Conference on Afghanistan. On January 25-26, Istanbul hosted two other Afghanistan-related meetings. The first was a tripartite summit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Turkish President Abdullah Gül, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The second involved officials from these three countries as well as from China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United Kingdom and other countries.
The Istanbul summits graphically illustrate Turkey’s important but sometimes overlooked military, diplomatic, and other initiatives aimed at establishing peace and security in Afghanistan.
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 initially deployed 276 troops into Afghanistan in late 2001, during the post-9/11 coalition military operations in that country. This figure rose to 1,300 after Turkey took command of ISAF, then charged with providing security in Kabul and running the city’s international airport, in June 2002. Turkey currently has approximately 1,700 troops in Afghanistan. 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 Army and the Afghan 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 counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), al-Qaeda, and other militant groups.
Turkish forces 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 and Turkish non-governmental organizations have supported several humanitarian and economic reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. These have included education, health, housing, and infrastructure improvement projects. The Turkish government, with funds from the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), has constructed dozens of schools, helping fill a major socioeconomic gap in Afghanistan. TIKA projects have also helped dig wells to provide citizens with safe drinking water. Turkey’s Southern Anatolian Project (GAP), has supported research into how to improve irrigation in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. Turkey has donated much food to Afghanistan through the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and other means. Turks have constructed or rebuilt several hospitals and health clinics in Afghanistan and have supported other health initiatives in the country.
IMPLICATIONS: Economic considerations also sustain Turkish interest in ending the Afghan conflict. The continued fighting has prevented Afghanistan from joining with Turkey and other countries in providing a Eurasian east-west land route for Central Asian exports to European markets. Turkey aims to become a major transit country for trade between Asia and Europe, but regional insecurity has discouraged foreign investment in east-west railroad, highway, and pipeline projects.
The Turkish government has launched several diplomatic initiatives aimed at reducing the sources of regional instability. Many of these initiatives have focused on improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since 2007, Turkey has hosted four annual trilateral summit meetings involving Turkish, Afghan, and Pakistani representatives, including their presidents as well as senior intelligence and military officials. Turkish officials have also discussed regional security issues related to Afghanistan with representatives of Iran and other Eurasian countries. Like the current U.S. administration, Turkish officials argue that any enduring solution to the Afghanistan 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 insurgents use Pakistani territory as a base of operations.
A statement released after the most recent meeting on January 25, 2010, declared that the “Trilateral Summit Process is truly representative of the deep rooted and brotherly ties of friendship and solidarity that have grown ever stronger between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.” At this meeting, 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.
The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman observed that, “Turkey is well-situated to be bringing together the two parties because of its historical ties with them.” In these efforts, though, Turkey has faced many of the same challenges that have bedeviled similar U.S. and other third-party mediators. These obstacles include a porous border region, which facilitates drugs trafficking, and a pair of weak central governments, whose security forces have proven unable to suppress the Taliban insurgents who operate in the common border region and enjoy some support among the large Pashtun community that straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
In certain respects, NATO and Turkey are natural partners in Afghanistan. Turkey has unique cultural and geographic assets in this regard. 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 primarily on Europe, North America, and the ocean between them. İncirlik 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, former Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin served as NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan.
Conversely, from the perspective of potential costs, an alliance defeat in Afghanistan – which would seriously weaken NATO – would in turn also weaken Turkey’s strongest security link with most European countries. Turkey remains excluded from most EU security activities. It is a member of the OSCE, but its security functions have been paralyzed by Russian-NATO divisions. Turkey has developed ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but is neither a full member nor a formal observer of the SCO. It has even fewer links with the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), whose members include all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan. A weakening of NATO’s security preeminence in Europe could degrade Turkey’s ability to affect European and Eurasian security developments.
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 from 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 for Turkish participation in the war, have made the Turkish government cautious about its level of involvement, especially in the military realm.
CONCLUSIONS: NATO governments have declared 2010 a year of decision in Afghanistan. Citing a deteriorating security situation, President Barack Obama announced in December 2009 a U.S. military troop surge for Afghanistan. American officials then asked other NATO members, including Turkey, to increase their commitments. During Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to the White House on December 7, 2009, President Obama requested that the Turkish government deploy combat troops to Afghanistan. Prime Minister Erdoğan declined. He and other Turkish officials explained that they prefer to focus their military contributions on training Afghan security forces, undertaking economic reconstruction projects, and supporting other non-combat missions. Turkish President Abdullah Gül argued that, “Sending soldiers is not the solution. We need to give equipment and training to Afghan forces.” Alluding to Turkey’s value as a potential mediator between the Afghan government and its adversaries, Gül added that, “If Turkey sends combat forces to Afghanistan, the power that everybody respects — including [the] Taliban — will disappear.”
The Obama administration now appears to have moved closer to the logic of the Turkish position. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointedly declined to request additional Turkish combat troops at the February 6 NATO defense meeting. Gates told the media that U.S. officials were “extremely pleased with Turkey’s contributions in Afghanistan” and that they “pay high importance to personnel that can train [Afghan] individuals in the areas of military and security.”
Turkey has already trained several thousand Afghan military personnel in Afghanistan and hundreds of additional Afghan soldiers in Turkey. NATO suffers from a major shortfall in such crucial training, one more severe than its unmet quota of combat troops. 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, would offer a superior means by which Turkey can continue to promote Afghanistan’s post-conflict reconstruction.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Hudson Institute Center for Political-Military Analysis. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".