How Turkey can help NATO in Afghanistan
Turkey may be one of the few countries that can bring Afghanistan and Pakistan together to sort out their differences.
At the recent London Conference on Afghanistan, the United States, its NATO allies, and Afghanistan’s regional neighbors agreed to more closely align civilian and military efforts to stabilize that nation so foreign forces can withdraw and local Afghan forces can take over security.Skip to next paragraph
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On the civilian side, a new emphasis was placed on the key importance of building up Afghan institutions that can attract the allegiance of those who now stand with the Taliban.
As a historically trusted friend of the Afghan people, Turkey, alone among members of the NATO alliance, has a “soft power” ingredient in its arsenal that is key to winning the hearts and minds of the population.
It is said in Afghanistan that “no Afghan was ever killed by a Turkish bullet” and “no Afghan trained by Turks has ever betrayed his country.”
Turks have aided the Afghan government and its people since the days of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Amir” who unified the country during his reign from 1880 to 1901 and embarked on a path of modernization. Afghanistan was the second country to recognize modern Turkey in 1921 after the USSR. Modern Turkey was instrumental in establishing the military academy, medical school, Kabul University and its faculty of political sciences, the music conservatory, and the public health service of Afghanistan.
Good relations between Turks and Afghans are based on three factors:
First, we do not share a common border and thus have no disputes on that score.
Second, as a young republic that was a successor to a great empire, Turkey never displayed any imperial overtones as it embraced the young Afghan nation, which had suffered at the hands of the British and Russian empires, after independence. Undergoing its own process of modernization at the time, Turkey treated Afghanistan as an absolute equal. We never had a special agenda and had relations with all elements of the Afghan nation.
Third, we share the religion of Islam.
Unlike many other members of the international community, Turkey did not neglect Afghanistan in the years preceding 9/11 but was silently active.
In my contacts with the Taliban during those years as Turkey’s special coordinator for Afghanistan, we pulled no punches. I explicitly told the Taliban leaders that we would not extend recognition to their regime. Turkey recognized the rump government of President Barhanuddin Rabbani that remained in only a small part of Afghanistan, mainly Badakshan Province and the Panshir Valley, until he was replaced by Hamid Karzai after the Taliban were driven from power by the US after 9/11.
We openly criticized the Taliban’s lack of governing capacity, their profiteering from the opium trade, their support for terror organizations like Al Qaeda, and their treatment of their own people.
Despite all this criticism, the Taliban nonetheless gave my colleagues and me free access to travel the country. I was always respected, and we were able to perform humanitarian work all over the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan. I was told on several occasions by the Taliban leaders that as much as they may scorn my remarks, as a Turk I was welcomed.
Shaped by our historical relationship with all parts of Afghan society, Turkey’s involvement there since 9/11 has quite consciously been a matter of “soft power projection.”
As a NATO ally true to its obligations, Turkey sent troops to Afghanistan after 9/11 on the condition that they would not take part in combat operations. Despite pressure from allies, Turkey sticks strictly to this policy. Our presence in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, has been based on treating people with respect and as equals, not with paternalism or the imperial arrogance of an occupying power.