BACKGROUND: On 3 and 4 September 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Ankara for consultations with Turkish leaders. The two military establishments, whose longstanding ties have been strained by diverging changes in U.S. and Turkish national security policies in recent years, were eager to avoid further public confrontations during Mullen’s visit. The Admiral sought to constrain the damage caused by Turkey’s deteriorating security relationship with Israel and Ankara’s opposition to sanctioning Iran for its nuclear policies by publicly insisting that bilateral military sales and exercises would continue as usual. In addition, the two sides deferred addressing security issues that could add to mutual tensions, such as whether Turkey would host U.S. missile defense systems, expand its participation in NATO’s troubled mission in Afghanistan, or allow the Pentagon to withdraw military equipment from Iraq via Turkish territory.
Citing the decades of close cooperation between the U.S. and Turkish military establishments, Admiral Mullen said that, “Turkey and the United States are not just allies. We are good friends and have been for decades.” The official reason for Mullen’s visit, his first since September 2008, was to make a courtesy call on the new Chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Işık Koşaner. Mullen also had meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül. The timing of his Ankara sojourn was convenient in that Admiral Mullen was visiting Baghdad, Kabul, and Islamabad on the same trip. The Turkish press, noting that the trip coincided with the official withdrawal date for all U.S. combat troops from Iraq, believed Mullen would press the Turkish government on Iraq, Israel, and other contentious security issues affecting Washington and Ankara.
U.S.-Turkish relations had been severely affected by the Iraq war, but in recent years the perspectives of Turkey and the U.S. regarding Iraq have converged. The Turkish government and national security community share the desire of the United States and Iraq’s other neighbors to establish a strong Iraqi government that is capable of ensuring domestic stability following the American military withdrawal. In July 2008, Turkey and Iraq signed a joint political declaration that established a high-level strategic cooperation council aimed at establishing a "long-term strategic partnership." The agreement strengthens joint efforts to prevent terrorists and illegal arms from moving across their border. The council has since served as a discussion forum for the prime ministers and other high-level government officials of both countries. They have met three times a year to improve cooperation regarding energy, security, diplomatic, and economic issues. Bilateral trade has more than doubled since the July 2008 agreement.
A few hours before Mullen arrived, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that it had agreed in principle to allow the United States to move technical and logistical military equipment through Turkish territory as part of the Iraq withdrawal. The Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman announced that, “We look favorably on the transfer of non-military elements and technical material via Turkey,” though he added without elaboration that talks on the possible transfer of other items via Turkey were continuing. Being able to withdraw some items through northern Iraq and Turkish territory could prove logistically advantageous for the U.S., but it could also be politically controversial. American troops would escort any heavy combat equipment such as tanks, armored vehicles, long-range artillery pieces, and air-defense systems. Such a move would require Turkish parliamentary approval, which is by no means assured.
At a news conference held at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Admiral Mullen refuted the press speculation about U.S. demands and stressed that the Pentagon was presently considering transporting only non-military items via Turkey. "Though we certainly rely on Turkey’s infrastructure to move some equipment in and out of our area of operations, we do not transport weapons through Turkey nor do we intend to in the future. Reports or suggestions to the contrary are simply false and completely without merit.” Interestingly, Mullen said that no discussions had yet been held on this issue since the Pentagon did not anticipate moving “any combat capability or combat troops through Turkey” during the U.S. military withdrawal. Meanwhile, Mullen pledged to continue to work with the Turkish military to fight the PKK. “Both nations have suffered and sacrificed at the hands of terror and I offer my deepest condolences for the loss of Turkish lives by the PKK, and I here rededicate my military’s commitment to supporting your efforts to fight these terrorists.”
IMPLICATIONS: Iraq is not the only issue of concern for the Turkish and U.S. militaries. Although the Iraqi transition is proving difficult, the security situation in Afghanistan is much worse. Turkey has made important military contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, currently led by NATO. As part of ISAF, Turkish forces have helped train members of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Turkish troops serve primarily in the Kabul region, but can also be found among several Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRT) elsewhere in Afghanistan. Turkey currently leads two PRTs, which assist with local economic development, judicial administration, and public infrastructure projects.
Some in the U.S. military would like the Turkish government to lift its caveat on NATO’s using Turkish troops in counterinsurgency or counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Erdoğan rejected a request by President Barack Obama during Erdoğan’s’s visit to the White House in December 2009. Turkish officials argue that they could make more of a contribution training Afghan security forces, undertaking economic reconstruction projects, and supporting other non-combat missions. As in other countries, Turkish public opinion is against increasing Turkish participation in the Afghan war.
During his Ankara visit, Mullen denied he had pressed the Turkish military to send combat troops to Afghanistan, though he told reporters that “we certainly welcome any additional assistance this government feels comfortable in providing.” Mullen emphasized his desire for Turkey to help make up the alliance’s shortage in military and police trainers: “any additional capability Turkey can provide against the training shortfall that we have, would certainly be of great help.” U.S. officials also want Turkey to extend its Kabul Regional Command in Afghanistan for another year beyond its expiry at the end of this October.
Mullen added that he had not discussed deploying U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Turkey. Washington is currently negotiating with the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey about possibly locating radar systems and interceptors on their territories as part of its phased-adaptive missile defense strategy for European BMD against Iran. Mullen said that the BMD issue was being addressed by Turkey and other states within NATO discussions, with a possible decision reached at this November’s alliance summit in Lisbon.
There have been news reports that President Obama threatened to cut off arms sales to Turkey in retaliation for the Turkish government’s opposition to imposing additional UN sanctions on Iran for its nuclear policies, and for Turkey’s confrontational policies toward Israel. When asked by Fox Television Turkey whether the "Mavi Marmara" Gaza Flotilla incident would lead the United States “to ban the sales of arms to Turkey under pressure from the Jewish lobby,” Mullen replied that the U.S. military sales program with Turkey “continues to flourish and will in the future.” In fact, the main threat to U.S. arms sales is the continuing development of Turkey’s own defense industry as well as Russian interest in expanding its military cooperation with Ankara. Mullen also denied that the United States was refusing to participate in this October’s Anatolian Eagle military exercise, hosted by the Turkish Air Force in Konya province, because Israel was not being invited. He explained that the United States normally plans and budgets to engage in two military exercises each year in Turkey and that these two exercises had already occurred.
In the case of Iran, Mullen stated that he “did not come here to question or in any way rebut Turkey’s decision not to support United Nations sanctions against Iran,” adding that “I know, with gratitude, your government's stated intent to enforce those sanctions that were passed.” He stressed that both countries shared the goal of preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, though divisions could widen if the United States or Israel were ever to take military action against Iran.
CONCLUSIONS: The end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq by 2012 is set to remove a source of bilateral tension between Turkey and the United States. Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq to combat the PKK could however present Washington with the difficult dilemma of having to choose between its longstanding if strained bilateral military alliance with Ankara, reinforced through NATO, and its new if inchoate strategic partnership with Baghdad. But it is unclear how long Turkey can continue to contest U.S. efforts to pressure Iran to change its nuclear policies or confront Israel about its security policies. However much some Obama administration officials might tacitly agree with the Turkey’s position regarding Palestine, Israel is an important U.S. ally that enjoys considerable support in the U.S. Congress, which has the authority to constrain U.S. arms sales to Turkey.
Afghanistan and missile defense appear to be swing issues. They could provide important areas for comprehensive Turkish-American military collaboration in future years. Or they could prove a source of tension if U.S. policy makers believe that the Turkish government is unwilling to contribute to achieving their countries’ shared security interests. In the past, Washington might have expected more deference from Ankara due to Turkey’s exclusion from EU defense decision-making structures. But the Turkish government has begun exploring new military partnerships with former adversaries, including Syria and Russia, so Washington policy makers should not have excessive confidence regarding their leverage in Ankara despite the continuing close ties between their two military establishments.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute
© 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".