Keeping the Peace in Afghanistan

On Turkey’s Shoulders

Turkish troops prepare to leave for Afghanistan
Turkish troops prepare to leave for Afghanistan, Feb. 15, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The United Kingdom may be eager to hand Turkey the reins to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but Turkish public opinion is divided on the new, greater peacekeeping role.

In light of the recent telephone conversation between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, it seems that England is very much willing to transfer to Turkey the command of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. But Turkey is still hesitant to take on this duty.

The main reason why England is so ready and willing to do so is that the ISAF’s three-month commanding mission will be over on April 22. The Blair government wants to transfer its duties to another country by that date, particularly given the pressure it is receiving from the opposition.

But why Turkey? There are several reasons: Ankara itself expressed interest in sending soldiers to Afghanistan and undertaking command of the ISAF. Second, most Western countries regard Turkey, a NATO member and Muslim country, as the “perfect choice.”

Indeed, when the decision to send a multinational peacekeeping force to Afghanistan was being made, Turkey was among the first countries to announce its wish to participate. [The idea of] Turkish soldiers serving in Afghanistan received enthusiastic support among the public. When the political and military authorities in Ankara studied the matter in depth, however, they concluded that the task is not as easy as it seems.

Indeed, it took time to transfer to Afghanistan the 261-person Turkish team. And now, Ankara would prefer not to rush into undertaking the command of the ISAF, which consists of more than 4,000 soldiers from 17 countries. For several days now, Ankara has been in close contact with Washington and London about this matter. The allies want it to happen. But Turkey is still cautious, and no decisions have yet been made.

According to the media, the main focus of the negotiations is money. It is true that Ankara is asking for foreign financial support in order to carry out such a mission properly. As has been suggested by the authorities, however, money is not the only reason why there has not yet been a decision on this matter.

The issue of financial support presents legal and economic problems when considered in detail. It is not easy to tell how this money will be provided and by whom. The United States and England are working on it. They will probably find a
way eventually.

Still, there are some other problems that need to be settled for Turkey: What will be the “powers and duties” of the ISAF from now on? Currently, the ISAF is based only in Kabul. The Americans want some troops to serve in other regions of the country as well. How will this be possible? Recent conflicts in Afghanistan revealed the necessity for establishing how the ISAF shall act under such circumstances. Otherwise, ISAF soldiers can be caught in the crossfire.

All these questions lead Ankara to be cautious. As one Turkish official said, before taking such an important step, “Turkey needs to see where it is going.” In other words, Ankara does not intend to lead the ISAF blindly. Doubtless, this is a mission that will enhance Turkey’s reputation and effectiveness. But still, the risks need to be minimized before Turkey takes it on.