April 13, 2012

Summary: The debate about Turkish involvement in Afghanistan has provided interesting clues about the parameters of Turkish foreign policy in general and Turkish perceptions of the future of Afghanistan in particular. The debate revealed two competing visions for Turkish foreign policy among political actors. The AK Party has so far been pragmatic enough to recalibrate Turkey’s policy on Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan and work in tandem with the United States. The West can count on cooperation from Turkey, provided that it develops a nuanced understanding of the sensitivities of the ruling AK Party.

“No Boutique State”: Understanding the Debate on Turkey’s Involvement in Afghanistan
by Şaban Kardaş
A Turkish helicopter crashed into a house in Kabul on March 16, leaving 12 Turkish soldiers and 4 Afghan civilians dead. The Turkish army’s investigation into the crash, which was the heaviest toll its troops serving in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)suffered, concluded that it was an accident. As the nation paid farewell to its fallen, the political parties were engulfed in a debate about the future of Turkey’s contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Since the incident came in the midst of heightened tensions following the burning of the Koran and the massacre of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier, the opposition parties immediately questioned the reasons for the crash, suggesting Turkish troops might have fallen victim to retaliatory or provocative attacks. More importantly, they vocally objected to a continuation of Turkey’s military presence, calling on the government to contemplate a withdrawal. The Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has asked what Turkey has to do in Afghanistan, and Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahçeli maintained that while Turkey had many problems of its own, it was meaningless to suffer casualties elsewhere. Government officials rebuffed those arguments, stating that Turkey would remain committed to Afghanistan. In a harsh reaction to the opposition’s criticism, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan maintained that “Turkey is not a boutique state... We cannot think small, we have to think big. Being a big state, naturally, comes with certain costs.” Globalist vs. Inward-Looking Foreign Policy Visions The element of petty politicking inherent in such bickering aside, this debate provided interesting clues about the parameters of Turkish foreign policy in general and Turkish perceptions of the future of Afghanistan in particular. First, the debate revealed two competing visions for Turkish foreign policy among political actors. While the ruling AK Party has exhibited a globalist strategic vision that operates on a broader agenda and set of objectives to conduct foreign policy, the opposition parties have demonstrated a rather inward-looking vision that focuses on defending Turkey’s narrowly defined interests. The govern-

Offices Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris • Brussels BelgraDe • ankara • BuCharest • WarsaW

ment seems determined to maintain the external commitments flowing from its partnership into the transatlantic security community, while the opposition parties remain skeptical to undertake such obligations.1 One can easily trace these two positions in the case of Turkey’s policy towards the Syrian uprising, Iranian nuclear program, or other issues of transatlantic concern. More often than not, the government has to confront criticism coming from the opposition any time it aligned with its Western partners on these issues, and to also prove that it was not a subcontractor of international interests. One can further debate whether the opposition parties’ argument is based on any built-in anti-Western feelings or populism, but their rhetoric so far suggests that they have done nothing to establish themselves as a credible alternative to the AK Party, with a vision to conduct a proactive foreign policy in the rapidly changing regional and global environments. They have not gone beyond criticizing any foreign policy initiative that involves coordinated action with the West undertaken by the government and formulated no alternative framework in which they could harmonize Turkey’s national priorities with those of the United States, considering that more often than not their foreign policy agendas overlap. Just as it enjoys an unchallenged domestic popularity, the AK Party by far remains the only viable partner for the West, one that is willing to undertake extended international responsibilities and cooperate with it on a range of regional and global issues. Despite its occasional divergence from and rhetorical bashing of Western policies, the AK Party has so far been pragmatic enough to recalibrate Turkey’s policy on Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan and work in tandem with the United States. More to the point, the government has taken great pains to present such cooperation as its independent choice, rather than merely a case of joining the bandwagon. To what extent Turkey indeed enjoys autonomy in such joint projects can be debated further, but the fact remains: the West can count on cooperation from Turkey, provided that it develops a nuanced understanding of the sensitivities of the ruling AK Party.
1 This rather paradoxical positioning of political parties between “conservative globalists” and “defensive nationalists” was aptly demonstrated by the political scientist Ziya Onis in the case of Europeanization. “Conservative globalists versus defensive nationalists: political parties and paradoxes of Europeanization in Turkey,” Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Vol.9, No.3 (2007), pp.247-261. One can see a similar differentiation of positions in economic policies also.

The AK Party by far remains the only viable partner for the West, one that is willing to undertake extended international responsibilities and cooperate with it on a range of regional and global issues.
Turkey’s Role in Afghanistan Turkey’s contribution to the international military presence in Afghanistan, as well as its future involvement in view of the projected withdrawal of combat forces by 2014, reflects the globalist vision of the AK Party. Turkey has been an active contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since its inception in 2001. When the government of the time contemplated support for the U.S.-led coalition operations in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a broad consensus among Turkish political parties. It was seen as almost a duty to the historic affinity toward the Afghan people and a responsibility demanded by membership in the transatlantic community. Since then, Turkey has maintained its contributions to ISAF with non-combat forces, though its troop levels fluctuated over time. Several times, Turkey was the lead nation of the coalition of the willing comprising ISAF before it was transferred to NATO. Currently Turkey, with 1800 personnel deployed there, leads the regional command in Kabul. Turkey also has assisted Afghanistan’s socio-economic and political restructuring by channeling a significant amount of development assistance and running two provincial reconstruction teams. In recent years, Turkey’s reaction to the transformations in U.S./NATO policy on Afghanistan was reflective of the broader division between the political parties identified earlier. The AK Party did not simply follow blindly when the United States decided to address the challenges posed by resurgence of Taliban, but it still exhibited a more globalist vision than the opposition parties and was ready to actualize the model partnership, which presumed a major


commitment by Ankara to Washington’s overseas engagements. While it criticized U.S. President Barack Obama’s troop surge strategy and even ran into disagreements in NATO in April 2009, the government eventually agreed to sustain Turkey’s military and civilian commitment to Afghanistan. Keen to underscore that it would follow the transatlantic allies on its own terms, the Turkish government declined to commit combat forces and its troops are only involved in ensuring the security in their area of responsibility, providing logistical assistance to other international forces, and training of Afghan security personnel.2 More remarkably, the government claimed to develop an Ankara-centered approach to finding a non-military solution to the Afghan conflict, one that was based on several interrelated principles. First, Turkey emphasized Afghan ownership, meaning all stakeholders should be brought on board for political and economic reconstruction. This concept offered a practical guide for Turkey’s development and infrastructure projects in the country, so that it would play an assisting role in Afghan authorities’ efforts, by contributing to capacity building at the local level. This principle also required neutrality, meaning that Turkey paid attention to maintaining an equal distance to various Afghan groups. Second, Turkey argued for a political dialogue and national reconciliation leading to comprehensive peace-building. While it recognized the urgent need for creating a strong and sustainable central authority, and hence supported the Hamid Karzai-led government in Kabul, Ankara also underscored the necessity of including all major forces, even the Taliban, in political processes and giving them a legitimate voice in determining the future of the country. Third, Ankara advocated regional ownership of the Afghanistan problem, underscoring the importance of the indivisibility of regional security. It worked to forge cooperation among neighboring countries and build capacity for regionally based solutions by initiating a Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral process and also seeking to generate synergy between its efforts and various other bilateral, trilateral, or regional initiatives. It was within these parameters that Turkey has maintained its military presence in Afghanistan, which has become
2 In addition to training programs in Afghanistan, Turkey also carries out joint training programs with Japan for Afghan police in Turkey’s Sivas province.

an area of relatively smooth cooperation in the TurkeyU.S. partnership. Here, the U.S. acknowledgement of Turkey’s sensitivities and limitations also deserves credit. For its part, Ankara’s timely promotion of a non-military approach to the conflict had an instrumental value: while this policy eased Turkey’s task of distancing itself from the unsympathetic U.S. policies and carving space as an independent-minded actor, it also enabled Turkey to maintain cooperation with the United States on its own terms. In particular, Turkey stepped up its contributions in the form of training and equipping of Afghan security forces, thus staving off pressures to dispatch combat troops, which might have put it in a situation to use force against another Muslim nation.

The U.S. acknowledgement of Turkey’s sensitivities and limitations also deserves credit.
In many ways, Turkey’s approach became even more relevant with the subsequent transformations in U.S./NATO policy on Afghanistan. First, Turkey’s regional initiatives resonated well within the transatlantic community when the latter embraced the idea of addressing the Afghanistan problem through multi-dimensional international platforms. For instance, prior to the two conferences on Afghanistan held in London in January 2010 and in Bonn in December 2011, major regional gatherings were held in Istanbul, underscoring the growing convergence between the Turkish and Western powers’ positions. Second, national reconciliation through the integration of all Afghan groups and initiating peace talks with the Taliban have been progressively adopted by the Western world, as the previous Af-Pak strategy failed to eradicate it. Third, with the announcement of drawdown plans, the importance of training and assisting Afghan military personnel has emerged as major items on transatlantic agenda, once again highlighting Turkey’s earlier contribution towards the Afghanization of security.


What Role for Turkey in Afghanistan Beyond 2014? That last point remains the most critical variable to determining Turkey’s commitment in Afghanistan. With the U.S. decision to phase out coalition combat forces by 2014 and transfer security to Kabul, ambiguity looms over foreign troops in particular and the international presence in general. The United States has yet to reach an understanding with Afghan authorities to clarify the nature and extent of U.S. military commitment beyond 2014. The resulting strategic uncertainty forces not only the Afghan groups but also neighboring countries to adopt hedging strategies, which renders the transition period even more troublesome. The upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will provide a venue for the Alliance to pay closer attention to this issue, but even there, it is far from certain there will be a breakthrough. When responding to the opposition parties’ questioning of Turkey’s military presence in Afghanistan, government officials forcefully reiterated that Turkey would remain committed even if NATO withdrew. Such statements clearly reflect the main reasons why Turkey sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place: the sense of historic solidarity with the Afghan people and the responsibilities flowing from the country’s membership into the transatlantic alliance. The current government in particular, with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s emphasis on the country’s strategic and historical depth, believes that independent of the transatlantic agenda, Turkey has to fulfill this responsibility towards the Afghan people. For its part, Turkey therefore has been one ally that does not sit on the fence. Unlike many regional countries’ hedging behavior, Turkey has undertaken major projects to help ensure a smoother transition towards normalization. Turkey will maintain training programs of the Afghan police and military in partnership with other allies, such as Japan and Germany, both in Afghanistan and in its own military and police academies. With the eventuality of withdrawal of combat forces, however, Afghanistan will hardly be a theater where Turkey can sustain a military presence even in a non-combat role. Although Turkey values its involvement there, without the robust security umbrella currently provided by the coalition and with growing uncertainty about the fate of the fragile administration in Kabul after 2014, Turkey cannot deliver much on its own in terms of influencing the developments on the ground. Given the limitations of its civilian and military capabilities, Turkey can make a unique contribution in Afghanistan only as part of a broader transatlantic strategy. The globalist vision adopted by the AK Party government is welcome news, but the contours of Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan beyond continuing its training and education programs will be determined by how much the United States is willing to commit and lead.

About the Author
Dr. Şaban Kardaş works as an assistant professor of international relations in the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful