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Turkey: Ankara Seeks Higher Profile In Afghanistan

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

As Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer wraps up his two-day visit to Pakistan, Ankara is preparing to host a meeting of Afghan opposition leaders to discuss plans for a post-Taliban government. Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member state, earlier said it could send a peacekeeping force into Afghanistan once the military phase is completed. Despite Ankara's claims that it does not want to interfere in Afghanistan's political future, such diplomatic initiatives may herald more ambitious plans in the region.

Prague, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States continues its bombing campaign against the Taliban regime and its efforts to locate Saudi-born Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, Turkey is stepping up its diplomatic initiatives in a bid to contribute to Afghanistan's political future.

Yesterday, Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer was in Islamabad for talks on Afghanistan with his Pakistani counterpart, General Pervez Musharraf, and other officials.

Turkey is also preparing to host Afghan opposition leaders for discussions of post-Taliban plans for the war-torn country. This meeting -- the location and date of which remain to be determined -- is expected to include representatives of the former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, as well as leaders of the Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of forces formally loyal to deposed president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Negotiations are under way to convene a second possible meeting in Turkey that would include, in addition to participants in the first gathering, leaders of Afghan groups who met on 24-25 October in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar under the aegis of Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani's National Islamic Front of Afghanistan.

The first of these two conferences in Turkey should in principle allow Afghan opposition groups to propose a list of delegates to a planned 120-member Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan that will later appoint a Loya Jirga, or meeting of the tribal chiefs of all ethnic groups. That Loya Jirga would in turn elect a replacement for the Taliban.

Government officials in Ankara claim that their country will act as host but will not be a party to the upcoming talks which, they say, were requested by the Afghan side. Yet there is little doubt that Turkey will try to use these meetings to lay the groundwork for a possible diplomatic breakthrough in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Although -- officially, at least -- Turkey is not directly participating in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban, it is sharing with the Pentagon intelligence data on Afghanistan's warring groups.

Turkey -- NATO's only predominantly Muslim member and a strategic U.S. ally on the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Syria -- has also offered its air fields to U.S. transport planes and has suggested that it could take part in an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan when the military operations come to an end.

Whether the Afghans will agree to the deployment of a peacekeeping force remains unclear. But the Turkish parliament has already granted the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit permission to send troops abroad as part of the world drive against terrorism.

Turkish diplomats believe historical, cultural, and geographic factors make their country the best possible candidate to play a mediating, or peacekeeping, role in Afghanistan.

Yuksel Soylemez co-chairs the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute, a think-tank affiliated with the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Soylemez told RFE/RL what kind of possible role he sees for Turkey in Afghanistan: "It is the role of a link between the Western world and Afghanistan. Not only because Turkey is a Muslim but secular country, [and] because it is part of NATO and the Western world. But [also because] Turkey has a historic relationship with Afghanistan. At the beginning of the Turkish Republic, in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk] sent his first ambassador to Kabul. The Afghan army was trained by Turkish officers, there were Turkish schools [in Afghanistan], et cetera. Turkey [had] a high profile in Afghanistan, [it was] respected as an elder brother and this [has] continued over the years, even during the Taliban era, although we did not support the fundamentalist Taliban [regime] and favored more [members of] the Northern [Alliance]."

Speaking on 22 October in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem urged regional countries not to interfere in Afghanistan's domestic affairs after the Taliban regime is ousted. In comments broadcast on Turkey's NTV private television channel, Cem said that "the final solution to the Afghan problem lies in creating an Afghan identity." He also warned against "special ties" between certain ethnic groups in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the various factions that make up the Northern Alliance have been supported by neighboring countries, most of the time -- though not necessarily -- depending on their ethnic background. Tajiks have been mostly backed by Tajikistan and Russia, while the Shi'a Hazaras have enjoyed support from Iran, and the predominant Pashtuns are sponsored by Pakistan.

Turkey itself is certainly not a newcomer on Afghanistan's troubled political scene. Ankara has actively supported Afghanistan's Turkic minorities over the past decade, notably providing money and weapons to ethnic Uzbek commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdulmalik.

Both Dostum and Abdulmalik fled to Turkey during the Afghan civil war. Dostum eventually went back to Afghanistan, where he is now fighting the Taliban near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Abdulmalik still lives in Turkey.

Some experts see a possible link between Turkey's most recent diplomatic efforts and Iran's fading role in Afghanistan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, both countries have been vying for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus -- Ankara with greater success.

Mohammad-Reza Djalili is an Iran and Central Asia specialist at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute for International Studies. In a interview with RFE/RL, Djalili said that what he called the "failure" of Iranian diplomacy may serve Turkey's ambitions in Afghanistan: "I think that there is a direct link here. Not only are the Iranians leaving [Afghanistan's] door open to other countries, they are also totally absent from a problem that concerns them totally and directly. They should blame only themselves for that; they made the wrong strategic choices. That the Iranians should be involved in the Middle East through the Lebanon-based Hezbollah [radical Islamic group] some 3,000 kilometers from Tehran, and that at the same time they should remain absent from the Afghan game, does not make sense to me. They're making a very serious mistake, and I think that all this diplomatic -- and somehow ambiguous -- gesticulating recently displayed by [Iranian] President Mohammad Khatami is an attempt to compensate for the appalling choices made by [Iran's] Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]."

Iran has harshly criticized the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan and has kept its airspace closed to coalition warplanes. Khamenei, one of the strongest critics of Washington's policy, has accused the U.S. of seeking power in Afghanistan and of trying to drag the world into a general conflict.

But at the same time, Iranian government officials have pledged to let U.S. humanitarian aid for Afghanistan transit through their country and have given private assurances that they would return any U.S. pilot downed over Iran.

That Turkey may see unprecedented opportunities in the new geopolitical order that is taking shape around Afghanistan was indirectly confirmed by its top diplomat. In comments reported recently by Turkish media, Cem stated that the importance of the U.S. and Turkey in Central Asia would grow "simultaneously."

At a meeting of Turkey's influential National Security Council on 21 August, government officials and top army generals reportedly agreed that Ankara should play a more active role in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

No details of Turkey's reshaped Central Asia foreign policy have been made available to the public. Yet foreign policy expert Soylemez said the ousting of the Taliban regime would certainly facilitate Ankara's stated intention to extend its influence eastward: "[Turkey's] new action plans cover most Turkic republics of Central Asia. Of course, this cannot be implemented in Afghanistan because of the Taliban regime. But once this obstacle is [removed], I am sure that Afghanistan [will] also be one of the next targets of this opening."

Whatever ambitions Turkey may nurture regarding Afghanistan, it will have to court Pakistan, which still sees itself as the main player in the region. The two countries maintain good relations and President Musharraf, who was partly educated in Turkey, is believed to be a secret admirer of Ataturk, the historic leader of the secular Turkish republic.

Still, Djalili of the Graduate Institute for International Studies believes that Islamabad is unlikely to let Ankara play a significant diplomatic role in a region it considers to be its sphere of influence:

"The Pakistanis are trying to monopolize the Afghan political scene to their own profit. Pakistan, which 'made' the Taliban, is trying again to supervise the establishment of Afghanistan's future regime. The Pakistanis would therefore give a very cautious welcome to any initiative coming from other countries, including Turkey. The least we can say is that they have not reacted enthusiastically [to Ankara's latest proposals]."

Sezer's talks with Musharraf produced few apparent results, with both leaders merely reiterating their support for a "broad-based" Afghan government.

In the meantime, the Turkish state minister in charge of Central Asian affairs, Abdulhaluk Cay, said on 24 October that General Abdulmalik -- Turkey's Afghan protege -- met recently with Musharraf. Cay, whose comments were reported by Turkey's Anatolian news agency, gave no details of the talks, which most likely took place in Pakistan.

Whatever the outcome of Abdulmalik's meeting with the Pakistani leader, the meeting itself could be just another sign that Afghanistan's future will continue to depend on secret diplomacy. As for Turkey's latest mediation offers, Djalili believes they are unlikely to succeed until the military situation in Afghanistan substantially changes.