Ankara, Kabul get reacquainted

As Turkey ends its stint as head peacekeeper this month, it seeks to build influence with an old ally.

There is something about the shiny new coat of yellow and blue paint on the Shah Du Shamshira mosque - a 16th-century monument surrounded by Kabul's 21st-century ruins - that puts an optimistic face on an otherwise dismal neighborhood.

For that, Afghans can thank a country that was a key ally in the early part of the last century and is reemerging as an important friend: Turkey.

"Turkey is the only country here that is taking care of our religious monuments, and that goes straight to our hearts," says Mohammed Reza, a soldier on his way to afternoon prayers in the mosque.

Interrupted by such events like the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the two countries are being drawn together by some of the same forces at work a century ago. They are both non-Arab Muslim countries seeking to keep fundamentalism at bay.

Turkey sees Afghanistan as holding the promise of valuable economic and cultural ties. For Afghanistan, meanwhile, Turkey is a potential model of a moderate and pro-Western Muslim country.

"We are a Western country, but we are a Western country that can understand the local culture," says Mehmet Seker, the deputy chief of mission at the Turkish Embassy in Istanbul. "The Taliban was the antithesis of the Turkish system. It's going to be slow, it's going to be long, but we want to help Afghanistan to get back on the track toward modernity."

Turkey's place as one of the most critical US allies in the Bush administration's game plan for a military strike against Iraq is a signal of its return as a coveted and courted partner. However, Turkey was disappointed this month by the European Union's decision to put off setting a date for the start of accession talks until the country's candidacy is reviewed in December 2004.

Eager to assert itself as worthy of joining the EU, Turkey has been quick to play a role in multinational peacekeeping. As it nears the end of its six-month tour of duty leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - Kabul's 4,800-member multinational peacekeeping team - its footprint in Afghanistan is growing in a variety of ways. A sizable portion of contracts for reconstruction projects are being awarded or subcontracted to Turkish firms. A host of joint US-Turkish joint venture projects are under way, including plans to open a five-star Hyatt Hotel in Kabul, three-quarters of which was funded by Turkish investors. And five Turkish high schools in major cities in Afghanistan - including a sixth which will open in Herat next year - are thriving after being closed under radical Islamic rule of the Taliban.

But what really touches average Afghans is the sense that the Turks "get" them - unlike many non-Muslim foreigners here. "The people around here like the Turks better than the infidels," quips Mr. Reza. "They greet us with 'salaam,' rather than 'hello.' " Reza credits Turkey with lifting the nighttime curfew in Kabul - in place for over 20 years until last month - because it took place on Turkey's watch as head of ISAF.

Unlike many of Afghanistan's immediate Muslim neighbors, Turkey's history of relations with Afghanistan conjures nostalgia rather than suspicion. Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, once viewed Afghanistan as the fledgling Turkish republic's best friend in a region of awkward acquaintances.

Gul Mohammed, caretaker at the Shah Du Shamshira mosque, says the real reason Turkey wins points in Afghanistan is that it does not "meddle" in the domestic political frey. "They don't interfere in our affairs, compared to our neighbors," he says, referring to Iran and Pakistan's roles in funding different warlords and groups in Afghanistan.

Turkey's official relations with Afghanistan broke off soon after the Soviet takeover. And while Ankara did not openly back the mujahideen as Washington did, Turkey was widely reported to be funding Gen. Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord whose secularism and Turkic ethnic origins made him a natural favorite in Turkey. In Mazar-e Sharif, a sort of regional capital of General Dostum, Turkey is the only non-neighboring country with a consulate.

Though deeply different places today, the two countries' cultures and languages have many crossovers, including 2,000 words in common. Turks revere the Mevlana, a Sufi mystic born in Afghanistan.

Turkey and Afghanistan found solid common ground in the 1920s in particular, a time when the borders of the Middle East and Central Asia were in flux. Amanullah Khan, then King of Afghanistan, was the first world leader to recognize the Turkish republic. Khan, who sought to modernize Afghanistan, lent his support to the "Young Turks" while they fought for independence.

At the time, Afghans sold family carpets to donate money to impoverished Turks, says Resit Kocman, the headmaster at the Ariana Afghan-Turk High School in Kabul. Today, he says, Turks are so fond of Afghans that private people donate money to the Turkish-run high schools here. In Kabul alone, about 1,200 children study free of charge at one of best-equipped schools in the country.

But the red-and-white Turkish flags and Ataturk portrait handing in the Ariana school entrance stand for an ideal that is still unmentionable in Afghanistan: separation of mosque and state. The school gets a regular stream of visitors, some of them curious to know whether children will be indoctrinated with a secular outlook. On the contrary, the schools are run by the Nurcus, viewed in Turkey as a group of especially ardent Muslims.

Mr. Kocman says the school focuses on universal values and basics from math to biology. "We teach them humanity and brotherhood, rather than religion," says Kocman. Classes include 20 hours of English a week, and just eight hours of Turkish. A new university here is their next goal. "We're sure Afghanistan will be as it was years ago" - when women in Kabul wore mini-skirts, he points out - "and that it will be more like Turkey. "

For years after Turkey's founding in the mid 1920s, Afghanistan's upper-level Army and diplomatic personnel went to Turkey for training; most military terms in Afghanistan are in Turkish. Now, military links have turned a new chapter. Earlier this month, about 400 Afghan soldiers charged with guarding the presidential palace graduated from an advanced military course by Turkish peacekeepers.

"The Afghans could learn a lot from the Turks. They can learn how to use the Army as a tool of nationalization," says Robert Finn, US Ambassador to Afghanistan. "The Afghans don't have bad feelings toward the Turks as they do toward a lot of other people," he explains. And unlike some Western investors, the Turks here are not shying away for fear for their security. "There's just loads of interest," Finn adds. "The Turks are coming and they're trying to do business."

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