By Ihsan Bal
The death of twelve Turkish soldiers in a helicopter accident in Afghanistan in March provoked a fierce debate inside Turkey about the presence of Turkish forces in that country. There are those who say that Turkey should not be in Afghanistan at all; others claim that Turkey is just being dragged along in the wake of the U.S. and the Western world. Yet others try to list the grounds on why Turkish soldiers are there.
People who were only reminded of the presence of Turkish forces in Afghanistan by the deaths of the twelve soldiers and who then discussed it in a very restricted security framework have put up fierce opposition. However, there are three basic flaws in the argument that Turkey should pull out of Afghanistan.
The first flaw is that it ignores the fact that Turkey is in Afghanistan because it has responsibilities arising from its historical ties there. The second, it fails to notice that Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan arises from a comprehensive overall strategy involving infrastructure work, industrial plants, and setting up educational and democratic institutions. Third, Turkey’s international mission and responsibility are being subtly misrepresented as serving other states, giving rise to an accusation of just being their subcontractor.
First Reason: Historical Links
Let us start with the first set of arguments: Relations between Turkey and Afghanistan were among the closest in the history of the Turkish Republic. Afghan volunteers stood by the Turks during the War of Independence and the help given by the Afghan people amid difficult conditions forms the basis for the sense of friendship and brotherliness between our two peoples. Afghan King Amanullah Khan heads the list of the foreign heads of state whom Ataturk received as guests in Ankara, and this is one of the most important indicators of our political affinity.
Our historical relations are made deeper by the fact that contacts were not just confined to the political level and that Turkey then as now gave assistance to Afghanistan in order to help its development in fields such as health, education and military affairs. Certainly that assistance has to be considered in the context of its own time and has to be acknowledged that in terms of impact, it fell far short of achieving the great results that were desired. But it is worth recognizing, when asking why Turkey is in Afghanistan today, that the answer to it involves historical roots and a continuity of good will and intentions today that stretches back to the founders of the republic.
Second Reason: Afghanistan’s Stability
The second answer to the question of why Turkey is in Afghanistan enables us to grasp an important truth which separates Turkey from other countries. Since 2001, Turkey has unwaveringly insisted that it should not station an offensive force in Afghanistan. Just how right it was to have this attitude can be seen better than ever when one turns and reviews the past.
Another important aspect which deserves to be thought about is that Turkey’s soldiers there have not carried out a single attack in Afghanistan, and the Turkish soldiers that died lost their lives in a helicopter accident; because the reasons for the Turkish presence there differentiate it from the other countries and are focused on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. To this end, Turkey has trained more than one thousand Afghan soldiers over the last decade as well as several thousand Afghan police officers. It has attached special importance to creating the security infrastructure necessary to ensure that Afghanistan does not sink into chaos after 2014.
Turkey has also undertaken comprehensive work to allow Afghanistan to take charge of its future. The areas involved include the transfer of know-how in agriculture, vocational education and apprentice training, and educating a cadre of administrators.
In terms of a percentage of its national income, Turkey is the country providing the most financial aid to Afghanistan. Since 2006, more than two hundred projects have been in progress, worth a total of $27 million. The total value of projects and other works carried out since 2001 is known to be above $307 million. But what is more meaningful than the figures is the fact that the purpose of Turkey being in Afghanistan and the meaning of its presence there are very different from those of other countries.
The hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, and water channels built by Turkey have won the hearts of the Afghan people. They are a result of this different approach and arise within the framework of a belief that Afghanistan should be run by Afghans. The Afghanistan that Turkey strives for is the one that will come after 2014. It aims to ensure that there is no return to civil war and is designed to create a basis which ensures that the capacity of the Afghan state is great enough to ensure lasting stability.
Between 1979 and 2010, this country experienced disasters, massacres, tribal wars and foreign intervention, and that should be of major help in appreciating how significant and important Turkey’s approach is. The war against the Russians was won but after it came a great downfall.
The need to ensure that the war against the Westerners, which allegedly is being won today, does not become a tragedy afterward has to be regarded as the main problem.
Because of that, Turkey’s work there does not just enjoy the approval of the Afghan authorities, more than that, it appears very significant to the Afghan people.
It might be said that Turkey is a country which has a place in the hearts of Afghans, and at a time when the Afghans wanted everyone else to leave their country, many specialists believed that they would appeal to the Turks to stay. Mr. Hikmet Çetin, who was NATO’s Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2006, says on the basis of his personal observation that this call has a very realistic base to it.
Third Reason: Turkey’s International Responsibility
Another reason which can be given in response to the question of why we are in Afghanistan is formed by international obligations and the responsibilities of Turkey as it grows. People who have never left their village may not know it, but Turkey is a regional power and it is a country which dispenses about $2 billion in aid and contributes to international peace and stability.
Turkey is an international player which helps ensure stability in the Balkans by fostering contacts between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians. Turkey’s return to the Balkans has been largely accepted by the different sides. It is engaged in comparable efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. Developments in Syria and the April 2 summit remind everyone that there cannot be a settlement in the region without Turkey.
Turkey is also at the forefront of attempts to solve the problems between India and Pakistan and Pakistan and Afghanistan. But it would be most misleading to suppose that a result could be obtained just by relying on easy rhetoric without becoming actively involved. It is certain that we in Turkey have to design policies appropriate for a state which is growing with great endeavors and for its vision, and we should accept our responsibility.
It may also be worth reminding readers that in his speech on March 23 this year to the Military Academy, Prime Minister Erdoğan stressed the fact that there are Turkish military cemeteries in 35 countries around the world. It sounds so easy to say that, but 35 countries shelter Turkish war dead in their soil.
In short, Turkey’s international commitments, its contributions to global peace and its will to resolve global problems are the essential reasons why it is in Afghanistan. When one adds historical responsibility, the principle of pacta sunt servanda and the reconstruction of Afghanistan to those reasons, then Turkey’s presence in that country ceases to be a matter of preference and becomes obligatory.
Head of USAK Science Committee