In a further attempt to boost his country's profile in Afghanistan, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer held talks today with Northern Alliance leaders in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. Almost simultaneously, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced in Ankara that 30 Turkish soldiers will head soon to Afghanistan as part of an international effort to fight terrorism.
Prague, 8 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer today ended a two-day visit to Tajikistan that focused on the situation in neighboring Afghanistan.
This visit came two weeks after Sezer went to Islamabad to discuss the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and one week after Turkey announced that it will carry out a U.S. request to dispatch troops in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance.
Talking to journalists upon his departure from Ankara yesterday, Sezer said he would discuss with Tajik officials bilateral cooperation against international terrorism and Turkey's participation in an international effort to help Afghanistan's impoverished population.
"Tajikistan is the only country that is in a position to secure safe transportation to areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. Our country, too, will be shipping humanitarian aid to Afghanistan from Tajikistan. During our talks in Tajikistan, we will consider ways to alleviate the sufferings of the Afghan people," he said.
After meeting for nearly two hours in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, Sezer and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov yesterday signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation against international terrorism and drug trafficking. Tajikistan is one of the main export routes for Afghan heroin meant for European markets.
Whether the two presidents also discussed military issues remains unclear.
Speaking to reporters after the talks, Rakhmonov said his country is ready to open some of its airbases to U.S. planes. American military experts are presently inspecting bases in the cities of Kulyab, Kurban-Tyube, and Khojand, which Rakhmonov said are in poor condition.
He said: "Following a request from the president of the United States of America, we are offering three airfields. If [U.S. military] experts say they want Kulyab, we will give them Kulyab. If they say Kurgan-Tyube, they will have Kurgan-Tyube. If they say Khojand, they will have Khojand. They may even have two [airfields]."
Turkey's main private television channel, NTV, reported yesterday that the U.S. has requested Ankara's help in determining which military facilities in the region could be used in anticipation of possible ground operations in Afghanistan. NTV quoted unidentified officials as saying a Turkish military delegation is already en route to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to visit airbases there.
Before heading for Georgia -- the second and final leg of his trip to former Soviet republics -- Sezer today held talks in Dushanbe with deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and other Northern Alliance leaders.
In remarks made after the meeting, Rabbani said the Northern Alliance needs financial, logistical and humanitarian help. He also said the Afghan opposition is strong enough militarily to contain Taliban forces.
"To destroy terrorist training centers and the Taliban movement, we have our own forces that are perfectly capable of fulfilling this task. We do not demand soldiers from friendly countries. What we need is financial and logistical help, as well as political understanding."
On 1 November, Turkey -- which had earlier opened its southern Incirlik airbase to U.S. planes -- said it would contribute a 90-strong special forces unit to buttress international efforts to bring down the Taliban. What role these elite troops will be requested to play once in Afghanistan remains unclear.
Ankara believes the U.S. could benefit from Turkey's 17-year-long experience in fighting armed Kurdish rebels in its mountainous southeastern regions. Washington, in turn, hopes the contribution from Turkey -- NATO's only Muslim member -- will help prove its case that the ongoing military campaign is not directed against Islam but is solely aimed at eradicating international terrorism.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit last week said the first priority of Ankara's 90-strong force will be to train Northern Alliance fighters. But when asked whether Turkish soldiers will be sent to the front line, Ecevit answered elusively, saying that he cannot anticipate what will happen.
Speaking earlier this week (6 November) in Ankara after talks with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi, Foreign Minister Ismail Cem was even more evasive.
"Turkish soldiers will be used in connection with the fight against terrorism, for that purpose, and to contribute to this struggle. This will never be a force used against Afghanistan, or to attack Afghanistan. On the contrary, it will be a force used to contribute to help saving the Afghan people from terrorism."
Two days ago, Turkey's NTV quoted unidentified military officials as saying the first group of Turkish soldiers would have headed to the region last weekend, but that the operation has been put off for at least two weeks.
NTV, whose report could not be independently confirmed, said Ankara's military planners -- concerned about the situation on the ground -- are waiting for the Northern Alliance to capture Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's second-largest city.
Located some 80 kilometers south of the Afghan-Uzbek border, Mazar-i-Sharif has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the beginning of the U.S.-led military campaign. The town is generally considered a key stronghold that, once in the hands of the Northern Alliance, would open the road to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Northern Alliance spokesman Ashraf Nadeem today said opposition troops fighting in the area -- including those under ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ankara's long-time ally -- are positioned only a few kilometers from Mazar-i-Sharif and are planning to launch a two-pronged attack on the Taliban-held town.
Hours later, Ecevit announced in Ankara that 30 Turkish soldiers would be sent to the region soon. But he did not say when or where the contingent would be dispatched. The Turkish prime minister also failed to say whether this 30-strong force will be in addition to the 90 soldiers promised earlier -- as one of Sezer's advisers suggested in Dushanbe -- or whether they will represent only an advance unit.
"In response to a U.S. request, we are sending in Afghanistan 30 officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] who have acquired a great experience in fighting against terrorism. The success of this unit will increase the prestige of our nation in the world. I ask God to protect our soldiers in this important mission."
The planned dispatching of troops has triggered fierce criticism both in Turkey and abroad.
In remarks made in Ankara two days ago, visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi reiterated Tehran's opposition to Turkey's decision, saying the deployment of foreign troops in Afghanistan can only aggravate the situation there. Iran's top diplomat also warned that any peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan must be conducted with a clear mandate from the United Nations.
Ankara last month offered to contribute to a possible peacekeeping force in the region if the Taliban is unseated, but Turkish officials have not specified under which auspices such a contribution would be made.
Kharrazi also said his country favors a post-Taliban government that comprises all Afghan ethnic groups.
Speaking yesterday in Dushanbe, Sezer echoed Kharazzi's remarks, saying that all ethnic groups -- including the predominant Pashtuns from which the Taliban is drawn -- should be represented in the next government. But the Turkish president ruled out any Taliban representation in Afghanistan's future leadership.
Turkey's semi-official Anadolu news agency quoted Sezer as saying, "The Taliban is not an ethnic group. It represents an ideology. This does not correspond to the Afghan reality. A government should be set up that includes all ethnic groups, including Pashtuns. I've said it many times, and I am saying it once more: Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans."
The planned dispatching of troops to Afghanistan has also raised concerns in Turkey itself, notably among Islamic and left-wing opposition circles.
Yesterday, the Saadet (Felicity) Party referred the matter to the Constitutional Court, asking judges to reverse a 10 October parliamentary decision to allow Turkish troops to be deployed abroad. When the court would consider the petition remains unclear.
Saadet leaders claim that the decision is unconstitutional because details of the time, place, and length of the deployment had not been provided when the legislation was passed. They also say Turkey's contribution to the U.S.-led anti-Taliban campaign amounts to a declaration of war, a decision that requires a separate vote by parliament.
Another Islamic formation, the Justice and Progress Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma), backed Saadet's petition. Ecevit slammed the petitioners, accusing them of "sabotage." In a bid to downplay domestic Islamic opposition to the U.S.-led campaign, he also said the majority of the population agrees with sending troops to Afghanistan.
Yet recent opinion polls show that nearly 80 percent of Turks disapprove of the decision.
Meanwhile, left-wing militants have staged several demonstrations in major Turkish cities to protest what they describe as the government's "war policy." Clashes between police forces and protestors erupted on 6 November in Istanbul and Ankara, leading to the arrest of dozens of leftist students.
(RFE/RL's Dushanbe bureau contributed to this report.)