Can Turkey Save Afghanistan?
Image Credit: NATO

Can Turkey Save Afghanistan?


The recent Istanbul Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia conference has prompted a great deal of discussion, hardly surprising with media outlets running headlines like: “As NATO withdraws, Afghanistan’s neighbors make security pact.”

The only problem with this is that participants didn’t agree a pact with binding commitments, but rather a “vision” document with no means of ensuring that any of the principles and projects will actually come to pass.

Still, the issue is of significant interest, especially with the Obama administration having increased the number of diplomatic initiatives aimed at creating a favorable environment for an Afghan-led peace process. In her first appearance before Congress since returning from a week-long trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Obama administration’s Afghan-Pakistan war strategy is pursuing three mutually reinforcing tracks: “fight, talk, and build.”

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But the United States is far from the only country boosting its diplomacy in the region. Turkey has also been complementing its longstanding military and economic contributions to Afghanistan with some regional maneuvering. 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 governments), 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 insurgents use Pakistani territory as a base of operations.

Turkish officials say 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 incentives to interfere in their internal affairs.

Certainly, Turkey has provided extensive assistance to Afghanistan’s security – it has twice led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and currently heads ISAF’s command for the Kabul region. On November 1, Turkey extended its command of the ISAF’s Kabul region for another year. And, 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. The Turkish government and Turkish non-governmental organizations have, for their part, supported many humanitarian and economic reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, including education, health, housing, and infrastructure improvement projects.

Turkey is helped in its regional efforts by its long-established good ties with Pakistan, dating from their 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. But it is determined to move beyond mere declarations. As part of the trilateral process, Turkey earlier this year organized 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, and Turkish officials are now even considering initiating contact with the Afghan Taliban in support of peace mediation efforts.

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