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Turkey: Silence On ISAF Leadership May Signal Unease At Antiterror Steps

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Earlier this week, French Defense Minister Alain Richard said Turkey will lead the Afghan International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) when Britain's mandate expires in three months. Ankara cautiously welcomed these remarks, saying details of the possible takeover are still being worked out. Turkey's lukewarm reaction may reflect an uneasiness among government officials in Ankara over the next steps in the international campaign against terrorism.

Prague, 4 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Soon after the United States launched its military campaign in Afghanistan, Turkey was one of the first countries to pledge troops in a bid to contribute to the restoration of peace in the war-torn nation.

On 10 October, only three days after the first U.S. and British bombs hit Taliban targets, the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) gave the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit permission to send troops to Afghanistan as part of the global drive against terrorism.

Turkey initially offered to contribute a 90-strong elite forces unit to buttress international efforts to bring down suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. Turkish officials later raised the stakes, suggesting that Ankara could send up to 3,000 troops as part of an international peacekeeping force.

Yet the size of Turkey's contribution to the International Security Assistance Force authorized on 20 December by the UN Security Council is likely to be revised downward. And not only because Afghan leaders have limited the number of foreign soldiers they will accept on their soil. Some analysts believe Ankara's enthusiasm has cooled to such an extent that Turkish officials are now considering a more symbolic participation in ISAF.

Speaking on 2 January in Islamabad, visiting French Defense Minister Alain Richard said that, following an earlier request made by the Turkish government, Ankara will assume command of ISAF when London's mandate expires in three months.

Yet this announcement received little notice in Ankara. In a statement quoted by the semi-official Anadolu news agency, Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Diriyoz downplayed Richard's remarks, saying details of the possible transfer are being worked out.

And in an interview broadcast later that day by Turkey's NTV private television channel, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem also remained tight-lipped about Ankara's role in ISAF. And there was little mention of Richard's remarks in the headlines of Turkish newspapers.

To add to this impression of uneasiness, Foreign Ministry officials are hinting that Turkey's contribution to ISAF could be much smaller than that of other nations. In comments made to Agence France Presse on 2 January, one of Cem's aides said the number of troops Ankara could dispatch to the region has not been determined, but suggested that it would be less than 700. But the unidentified official also said this number could be revised upward if the UN Security Council decides to offer Turkey the ISAF leadership.

But whether Ankara really wishes to assume a leading role in the force remains unclear. In fact, an RFE/RL correspondent in Kabul reported that Turkey was not among the 12 potential contributing countries that sent military representatives to the Afghan capital recently to study the task facing the security force.

Bahadir Kaleagasi is a leading political expert and the permanent representative of the influential Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, or TUSIAD, in Brussels. Kaleagasi says he believes Turkey remains committed to participating in ISAF, but that it is keeping a low profile to avoid possible confusion over its objectives:

"It is quite clear that Turkey has taken a firm decision and that this decision is not being questioned. Simply, it would rather implement it in a less spectacular way, so that its participation is not perceived in the Muslim world or elsewhere as differing from the official aim of the international force. Turkey is certainly acting with caution, but it has not decided yet to reconsider its decision."

However, other analysts believe a number of factors could affect the magnitude of Turkey's involvement in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Since the events of 11 September, Ankara has been steadfast in its support for the U.S.-led drive against terrorism. NATO's only Muslim country member and a large recipient of American military aid, Turkey wasted no time in offering its airspace and military bases to the U.S. and in sharing intelligence data with Washington.

Ankara also stepped up efforts to restore ties with Afghanistan. On 17-18 December, Cem attended the re-opening of the Turkish embassy in Kabul and held talks in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with Ankara's main ally in the region -- ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Cem -- who pledged his country's help in rebuilding Afghanistan's army, police forces and medical infrastructures -- was reportedly the first high-ranking Turkish official to visit the country since President Cevdet Sunay in 1969.

Ankara sees itself as a bridge between Afghanistan and Western countries, starting in the 1920s, when close ties existed between Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of secular Turkey, and then Afghan king Amanullah. Although Turkey enjoys some credit among Afghans, its influence in the country remains limited, especially among ethnic Tajik Northern Alliance leaders, who hold the key defense, interior and foreign affairs portfolios in the new interim administration.

Turkey sees the influence of Russia and Iran on the Northern Alliance leadership as the main obstacle to its diplomatic ambitions in Afghanistan. Turkish officials have blamed Tehran for convincing Northern Alliance political leader and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani to boycott a planned post-Taliban conference in Ankara in October. The meeting was canceled. Afghan leaders gathered instead near the German city of Bonn.

Although Pakistan maintains good relations with Turkey, Islamabad is unlikely to let any foreign power play a significant diplomatic role in Afghanistan, a country it still considers to be in its sphere of influence.

Ankara's role in Afghanistan would certainly serve the interests of the U.S., which is keen to prove its case that the ongoing antiterrorism campaign is not directed against Islam.

In return for its support for the U.S.-led antiterror war, Prime Minister Ecevit is counting on international financial aid to help his cabinet extricate Turkey from a serious economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund has already made a firm pledge of $19 billion to Ankara, and both sides are currently negotiating another $10 billion in loans to bolster the existing recovery package.

In an additional encouraging sign to Turkish leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 5 December hinted that Washington might consider lifting trade barriers with Ankara.

Ecevit is due to meet on 16 January with U.S. President George W. Bush for talks on economic issues and cooperation against terrorism. Both men are also expected to discuss the situation in Iraq, which Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism and of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Turkey has voiced concerns that any military action against President Saddam Hussein's regime for its refusal to allow UN weapons inspectors to return could stir its restive Kurdish southeastern provinces.

Although the U.S. administration claims it has no immediate plans to coerce Baghdad, it has failed to reassure Turkey that its military campaign against terrorism will not extend to Iraq. Some experts see a direct link between Ankara's suspected willingness to downsize its contribution to the Afghan security force and existing uncertainty over Washington's Iraqi plans.

In a column published on 28 November in the English-language "Turkish Daily News," Houston-based independent regional analyst Ferruh Demirmen wrote: "The Turkish government hoped that [its decision to commit troops to the international force] would give it the leverage to dissuade the [U.S.] from expanding its war to Iraq. Judging from Bush's saber-rattling rhetoric and the cogent anti-Saddam sentiment in America, however, Turkey's chances of influencing America's post-Afghanistan Iraq policy appear slim."

TUSIAD's Kaleagasi does not believe the Iraqi issue will interfere in Ankara's decision to lead ISAF, simply because any decision to strike Baghdad would be made after Turkey takes over from Britain, if in fact it does. But he warns that differences between Turkey and the U.S. over Iraq could, in the long run, force Ankara to revise its Afghan plans:

"Any [U.S.] decision regarding Iraq will be made after Turkey decides to formalize its action in Afghanistan. However there could be some consequences later on. If Turkish troops are deployed in Afghanistan, and if a political crisis breaks out between [Ankara] and [Washington] over an American intervention in Iraq, then Turkey will certainly reconsider its participation."

In an attempt to allay Turkey's concerns, a U.S. Congressional delegation headed by Senator Joseph Lieberman visited Ankara today ahead of a weeklong trip to Central Asia for talks with government officials. Speaking to reporters after the meetings, Lieberman said the U.S. will not extend its antiterror campaign to Iraq without first consulting Turkey. And he praised Ankara for its support in the anti-Taliban campaign:

"We wanted, quite intentionally, to stop here in Turkey, in Ankara. First, to thank Prime Minister Ecevit -- we also met with Foreign Minister Mr. Cem -- for the long-term friendship with the United States, for the strong bilateral relationship, and particularly, for the very critical support, very important support, that our allies here in Turkey have been giving us and the international community in this specific war on terrorism."

Regional analyst Demirmen also wrote that, in return for its participation in the Afghan peace-building mission, Ankara also expects Western countries to take decisive action against radical Islamic groups, leftist urban guerillas and Kurdish separatist movements it considers a threat to its security. Most of these groups have been banned by Turkish authorities and have found shelter in Europe, notably in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

On 13 December, Germany outlawed a minor Cologne-based organization known as the Association of Islamic Groups and Communities, or Caliphate State (Hilafet Devleti), an Islamic revolutionary movement Ankara accuses of being linked to bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

But a few days later, on 28 December, the European Union failed to include the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and the radical left-wing Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, or DHKP-C, in a list of terrorist organizations. This decision was criticized in EU-hopeful Turkey, especially among the Nationalist Movement Party, Ecevit's junior coalition partner, which accused the 15-member bloc of "duplicity."

EU countries are believed to be preparing a second list of terrorist organizations, which Ankara hopes will include both the PKK and the DHKP-C. In a statement released on 29 December, the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned that it will "closely monitor the issue."

Although TUSIAD's Kaleagasi believes it is too early to establish a direct link between the EU's antiterror policy and Turkey's attitude toward ISAF, he says further disagreements between the two sides over security matters could eventually impact Ankara's commitment in Afghanistan.

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