The Turkish military, long accustomed to the domestic limelight, took on new challenges in the global arena as it assumed control of the 4650-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan last week.
The Turkish military will control ISAF, which provides security for Kabul’s southwest 120-square-kilometre region, for a six-month term. Taking over from British control, their mandate is to ensure no crime or terrorist activity, but does not allow the military to get directly involved in problems without liaising with Afghan police. The UN-mandated ISAF was established in December after the Taliban was ousted to assist the provisional Afghan government gaining control of the country’s weak and war-torn administration.
Turkey will also take over 18 of the 37 Civilian Military Cooperation (CIMIC) projects initiated by the British troops. In a press conference following his arrival, newly appointed ISAF commander, Major General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, announced that Turkey would be beginning many of their own new projects such as an 800-bed hospital, schools, bridges, and the instillation of an advanced air traffic system.
Turkey’s new role has drawn considerable international praise, particularly from the United States. Francis Taylor, Coordinator of the Fight Against Terrorism of the U.S. State Department, called Turkey one of the US’ strongest partners in the ongoing efforts to eradicate terrorism in Afghanistan and throughout the world, and praised Turkey for taking the initiative in the command. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented in a statement on June 21, "This decision demonstrates Turkey’s willingness to assume a leadership role in the war on terrorism and, in particular, to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan."
The US has been keen to emphasize the support of Muslim allies in their war against terrorism, and as the only Muslim NATO member, Turkey was the first choice of US policy makers to take command in Afghanistan. Washington is eager to promote Turkey as both a democratic and secular role model for Afghanistan, and many speculate, for the rest of the Muslim world.
Rhetoric will hopefully be matched with dollars as US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld announced on June 23rd that Congress would allocate funds, rumoured to be in the neighbourhood of $228m, to Turkey for its concrete support to fight against terrorism and its expenditures for the mission. He concluded, "I believe that Turkey will achieve a great success during its command of ISAF." Turkey had agreed to take over the force only after lengthy negotiations over its potential financial burden, and there is some worry in Ankara about whether the US Congress will release the funds. Sensitive to economic concerns, Zorlu was quick to announce that, "The Turkish General Staff and Turkish Armed Forces Command has appropriated money for the ISAF command. We will use this money for ISAF and CIMIC. We all know the economic difficulties that Turkey experiences. We won’t spend a dollar for nothing."
For Turkey, gaining increased US recognition is crucial in a time of deep, economic crisis where US support has been essential in securing billions of dollars in loans necessary to keep the economy on track. It is widely hoped that Turkey’s stepped up international role in ISAF will pave the way to continued economic assistance. Beyond monetary gains, assuming an international leadership role and proving its increased importance in world politics are also seen to be means to boost Turkey’s bid for admittance into the elusive European club and for increasing its influence as a regional power in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Turkey’s business community is also already looking towards Afghanistan for new reconstruction opportunities, and increased exposure because of ISAF leadership should pave the way for easier investment. In a recent speech in Almaty on June 21st, State Minister Farul Bal called particularly on Turkish businessmen who already work in Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tadzhikistan to use their local expertise to gain contracts in Afghanistan. Bal stated, "If you do not go now you will be late." He also emphasized that construction companies with fiscal problems in particular should look towards lucrative opportunities available there. In a recent interview with OBG, the CEO of a major Turkish construction company also emphasised "the wide variety of investment opportunity and potential associated with rebuilding Afghanistan." In Istanbul, Turkey’s Foreign Trade Undersecretariat and the US Department of Commerce brought Turkish and US companies together to discuss reconstruction opportunities in a "Target: Eurasia" forum. US and Turkish companies expressed their desire to work on joint projects and anticipate exploratory visits could come as early as August.
Assuming command, Turkey faces not only security risks involved in the everyday operational work, but the associated diplomatic risks involved with a high exposure assignment. Already the Guardian has launched criticisms that the Turks do not treat civilians in their mission areas properly, that they do not obey international rules, and that they would be inclined to support Uzbek General Dostum. Zorlu has already attempted to allay such claims, stating "I will dedicate myself to treating everyone equally."
The Turkish command will also be under pressure to temper their reputation for closed and rigid command, which could pose problems in a diplomatic mission involving 18 countries, close liaisons with Afghani security, and close media scrutiny. One diplomatic official, quoted in the Turkish Daily News, commented, "The General Staff isn’t known for its openness even towards NATO allies and this is where many will be looking for change." However, the general and his staff seem to reflect such change, all possessing broad foreign experience and training and an expressed willingness to be communicative. Furthermore, The Turkish General Staff, in an unprecedented move, has opened command headquarters to the officers of the 18 contributing nations.
The Turkish army, long used to a spotlight role protecting a democratic and secular order domestically, are enthusiastic for an opportunity to transfer this experience to the international arena. Certainly the way to operational success will be plagued by problems in commanding Kabul, as well as with international cooperation. Nevertheless, Turkey’s military have realised that problems will be expected, whereas successfully maintaining peace will garner important international recognition in many essential areas of national interest.