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Afghanistan: Turkish Armed Forces Assume ISAF Command, Embark On Crucial Test

By Jean-Christophe Peuch and Ron Synovitz

Turkey today formally took over from Britain command of the multinational force mandated by the United Nations to enforce peace in the Afghan capital. The force is to remain in Kabul at least for the next six months, while U.S.-led combat troops will continue to hunt down Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the rest of the country. Ankara hopes the takeover will boost its profile, both in the region and in the eyes of the international community.

Kabul, 20 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After months of difficult negotiations, Turkey today finally took over from Britain command of the 5,350-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Depicted at a major foreign-policy achievement at home, the handoff is seen abroad as probably the greatest test ever for the Turkish General Staff, which up until now has never been vested with such broad responsibilities.

General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, who arrived in Kabul on 11 June to prepare the takeover, will exert command over the multinational force for the next six months. He will succeed British Major General John McColl.

In comments published on 18 June in the Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News," Zorlu described the task assigned to ISAF as "one of the most difficult peacekeeping operations in the world."

Zorlu also said that the international community's insistence on having the Turkish Army assume the leadership of the multinational force is a sign that Ankara is recognized as an important player in world politics.

Soon after the United States launched military operations against Afghanistan's Taliban ruling militia last fall, Turkey was one of the first countries to pledge troops to contribute to the restoration of peace in the war-torn country. Arguing that it has cultural and historical ties with Afghanistan, Ankara volunteered to take over the leadership of ISAF as early as December of last year, soon after the United Nations-mandated multinational force was set up.

Ankara's links with ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most controversial Afghan warlords in the anti-Taliban coalition, raised suspicion that Turkey might attempt to influence Afghan politics at the expense of other regional power brokers -- Russia, Iran, and Pakistan -- that have ties with rival Afghan factions.

Yet, as weeks went by, Ankara's enthusiasm for the project cooled significantly. Concerns over the political situation in Afghanistan and possible U.S. military strikes on Iraq were cited as explanations for Ankara's sudden caution.

Whether Washington has succeeded in appeasing Turkey's concerns regarding the next steps of its antiterrorism campaign is not clear. Be that as it may, when asked by Reuters on 17 June why his country had eventually decided to take over the command of ISAF, General Zorlu cited Ankara's commitment to the global drive against terrorism and reverted to the same kind of ready-made comments officials in Ankara provided at the start of the anti-Taliban campaign. "In this case, after the 11 September attacks in the United States, Turkey would like to show [that it is committed to deter] terrorism. The second reason [why] Turkey accepted this invitation [to be] the [leading] nation and [to take] over the command of ISAF is that the Turkish and Afghan peoples [have been] friends and brothers for many centuries," Zorlu said.

Today's takeover also follows months of negotiations between Turkey and members of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition over possible technical glitches.

Ankara sought, and has apparently received, assurances from its allies that Turkish troops would be granted logistical and airlift support to carry out their mission, and that they would be able to use some communications equipment and facilities left behind by the British.

Another major concern for Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition cabinet, which is battling to extricate the country from its worst economic crisis since World War II, was that the international community would share the financial burden assumed by Ankara in taking over the ISAF command.

On 19 March, the United States pledged to contribute an aid package worth $228 million to that end, thus appeasing some of Turkey's concerns.

Jeremy Binnie is a Middle East editor at the British-based "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment" newsletter, a publication of the Jane's Information Group. He told RFE/RL that expected economic and political fallout have certainly been instrumental in Turkey's eventually agreeing to assume the leadership of ISAF. "Turkey has already seen quite a few concessions coming out from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on the economic situation. And by helping the U.S. out at this kind of time, the Turks will certainly want to get very sympathetic views on their positions on various other issues. Whether that will happen in Europe as well -- which is often a more crucial axis for the Turks, who are looking to get into the [European Union] -- is much more debatable because of the ongoing human-rights situation and economic problems. But with the U.S., this kind of deployment will certainly boost their diplomatic weight," Binnie said. On 4 February, the IMF pledged to allocate up to $16 billion in economic aid under a three-year standby deal to help Turkey overcome its 17-month-old economic crisis. It was the third major IMF aid program offered to Turkey in two years. Ankara is also due to receive more than $6 million by 2004 under a three-year World Bank program.

The U.S. administration, which analysts believe has been instrumental in getting the IMF and the World Bank to accelerate steps to rescue the Turkish economy, has also met Ankara's request to put the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, on its list of terrorist organizations after 11 September.

The European Union made a similar decision on 3 May, but only after the PKK decided to dissolve and to change its name into the Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan, or KADEK. Turkey's demands that the renamed separatist group be put on the EU terrorism list have not yet yielded any results.

The EU is concerned by Ankara's poor human-rights record and insists that candidate member Turkey amend its legislation to broaden the rights of its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority before it sets a date for the beginning of accession talks.

Fueled by Ecevit's recent bout of illness, domestic debates over reforms needed to meet EU criteria -- such as the abolition of the death penalty or a peaceful settlement to the division of Cyprus -- have significantly intensified over the past few weeks, bringing Turkey's ruling coalition to the verge of collapse.

Given that domestic context, Binnie believes the upcoming Afghan deployment will profit Turkey and help its leaders regain prestige and clout in the international arena. "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday quoted an American official in Ankara as saying that by taking over the ISAF command, Turkey shows "a strong commitment to the centrality of its role in Western and NATO thinking."

U.S. military experts point out that Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, has valuable experience in peacekeeping and peace-enforcing operations.

Over the past decade, Turkish troops have been deployed in Somalia, Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo. In addition, Ankara has been contributing troops to ISAF since February this year.

But this is the first time the Turkish military will assume full command of a multinational peacekeeping force.

Turkey currently has some 990 soldiers in Afghanistan, a number that could rise to 1,400 in the future. Britain meanwhile is expected to pull out most of its troops, bringing the strength of its ISAF contingent to between 300 and 400 from a current level of 1,300.

Under the new layout, Turkey is expected to assume command of ISAF headquarters. Much of the everyday operational work, including street patrols of the Afghan capital, will remain in the hands of the German-led Kabul Multinational Brigade, or KMB, a sub-unit of ISAF responsible for tactical measures.

KMB spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Loebbering told RFE/RL yesterday in Kabul that residents would not notice any change in the way ISAF conducts its patrols after the handover because Turkey would not have direct command over the troops monitoring security in the Afghan capital. "The rules for ISAF are laid down in the Bonn agreements on the one hand and, [on the other hand,] in the military technical agreement [agreed upon] with the [Afghan] interim administration on 2 January this year. Therefore, I do not expect any changes of this laid-down and written agreement," Loebbering said.

Loebbering said the KMB would remain under the command of Germany's Brigadier General Manfred Schlenker at least until December of this year. He also said the Bonn agreements could allow his country to continue leading this ISAF sub-unit in the future, provided the United Nations reviews the German mandate every six months.

In addition to street patrols in the Afghan capital, the KMB is also responsible for liaising with police commanders, the city garrison, the Kabul mayor's office, and religious clerics. Germany will also continue to be responsible for training soldiers who are being recruited into the Afghan national army.

As for the Turkish General Staff, it will oversee contacts with various United Nations agencies operating in Kabul and with the new transitional government of Hamid Karzai, whom the Loya Jirga last week chose to run the country for the next 18 months.

Turkey will also liaise with some of the large nongovernmental organizations that are working in the country, a task it will share with the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan.

Defense experts believe one of the biggest challenges Turkish generals will face in the next six months, or more if their mandate is expanded, will be to show openness toward other contributing countries. Turkey's General Staff has a reputation for secrecy and has so far extended limited confidence to representatives of foreign armed forces, even its NATO allies.

But the situation may change in the near future.

Turkey, which has been regularly consulted by Britain as one of ISAF's 19 contributing countries, has reportedly pledged to reciprocate and to open the doors of its General Staff headquarters in Ankara to military representatives of other countries.

Binnie also believes the level of cooperation shown by ISAF's Turkish command may be a problem. But he said that given Ankara's previous involvement on the Afghan scene, the biggest challenge facing the Turks now will be "to avoid getting dragged into the political situation on one side or the other."