Turkey Unwilling to Commit to Expanded Military Mission in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 12

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Turkey was the first Muslim country to join the United States in the global war on terrorism. As a NATO ally, Turkey first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002 to join the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which came under NATO command the following year (Turkish Daily News, January 8, 2002). Under the ISAF framework, Turkey currently has about 1,200 troops in Afghanistan. Most of the Turkish force is deployed in the Kabul area, where it provides local security as well as logistical and communications services. There is also a provincial reconstruction team working in Wardak province. Now, as a response to increased attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan, the United States is asking its NATO allies, including Turkey, for a greater commitment in troops (Milliyet, March 20).

As was expected, the March 24 visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to the Turkish capital of Ankara produced no immediate commitment on the part of the Turks to an expanded military presence in Afghanistan. The vice president attended meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chief of the Turkish General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit. Following these gatherings a U.S. official conceded only that the Turkish leaders were willing to look at the possibility of sending more troops, but offered “no immediate short-term commitments” (Hurriyet, March 24).

Last week, at the end of a meeting with his Afghan counterpart, Dr. Rengin Dadfar Spanta, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said only that “the government will make decisions in regard to dispatch of troops to Afghanistan in the next few days” (New Anatolian, March 20; Today’s Zaman, March 20). When the question of sending additional Turkish forces was put to the Afghan foreign minister, Dr. Spanta stated his appreciation of the support of Turkish troops, while underlining that he was not asking for an increase in their numbers (Milliyet, March 20).

It is important to note that the current mandate of Turkish troops does not authorize Turkish troops to conduct counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. So far, Turkish troops have been engaged solely in post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building activities in Afghanistan, such as training the new Afghan army and commanding ISAF twice since its inception in 2002.

During his regional tour last week, Vice President Cheney visited the NATO base in Bagram, Afghanistan, where he reiterated the U.S. demand for more troops in Afghanistan by stating the need to keep adequate forces in the region “in order to provide security to overcome the threats posed by the radicals such as Taliban and al-Qaeda” (Hurriyet, March 21). His remarks signal that the U.S. request for additional troops is likely to be one of the most critical issues on the agenda of the NATO summit in early April.

It is critical to note that the United States is not merely demanding more troops under the ISAF framework, but rather is demanding more combat troops for use in counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, especially in the hard-pressed southern provinces. Turkish Foreign Ministry sources argued that should the government decide to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the original parliamentary resolution of 2001 would be enough to authorize the measure; yet, when it comes to changing the mandate of Turkish troops—i.e. from humanitarian assistance to counter-terrorism—then the final word belongs to the Turkish General Staff (Hurriyet, March 21). It was for this reason that Cheney met with General Buyukanit as well as the political leadership.

At a press conference on March 18, General Buyukanit clarified the position of the Turkish General Staff on the issue of providing combat troops to Afghanistan: “Just a month after taking up my duty in this post [in 2006] I said that we would not send a single soldier to Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism. I still hold onto the same position… Our troops are in Kabul and under the ISAF which has no mission to fight against terrorism. Thus our troops are not there for this purpose. Additional troops are asked for the fight against terrorism… but we have no authority to send troops for this.” After indicating that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were already at war with PKK terrorists, Buyukanit added that “it would not be proper for Turkey to deploy some of its troops for another struggle” (Turkish Daily News, March 19; March 22). On the other hand, Turkish politicians seem reluctant to close the door. For example, when Foreign Minister Babacan was asked about his position on sending troops to Afghanistan he preferred to say that “we will establish a balance and make our decision” (Milliyet, March 20).

Although sending additional troops is not difficult for NATO’s second-largest army in terms of capacity, the issue has more complex political implications. Domestically both Turkish political and military elites are in essence facing the very same constraint—the fact that Turks are a predominantly Muslim society. Even though there is a distinction made between the Afghan people and the Taliban, it is still likely that there will be elements in society trying to depict the operations of Turkish combat troops as Muslims made to fight other Muslims by the United States. This is likely to further antagonize Turkish public opinion toward the United States and whomever—i.e. the government and/or the military—is allied with it. This concern is particularly relevant at the political level where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has roots and a constituency among conservative Muslims in Turkish society. While a combat mission in Afghanistan seems out of the question for now, there are reports that Ankara is considering the addition of one helicopter and several hundred troops to its force in Kabul (Turkish Daily News, March 21).

When it comes to the Turkish military’s position, one would expect the strategic balance to be more influential than the fact that both Afghan and Turkish people are Muslim. That is in part true, since the TSK is not only the military of the secular Turkish Republic, but also, more importantly, its guardian. In this respect it is critical to remember that the TSK has been undertaking a series of counter-terrorism operations against PKK terrorists that have been using northern Iraq as a safe haven. Although both Turkey and the United States classify the PKK as a terrorist organization, U.S. reluctance to take decisive action against terrorist havens in northern Iraq has upset U.S.-Turkish relations in general, and U.S.-Turkish counter-terrorism cooperation in particular. It seems the frustration of the Turkish military with a lack of American resolve to deny PKK terrorists safe havens in U.S.-occupied Iraq remains at the heart of the TSK’s reluctance to send combat troops to Afghanistan. After all, it would be unrealistic to expect full-fledged Turkish support for counter-terrorism when the United States is dragging its feet with respect to Turkey’s own counter-terrorism concerns. Recently, the United States opened Iraqi airspace and provided real-time intelligence in support of Turkish cross-border counter-terrorism operations and air strikes in northern Iraq. These steps demonstrate U.S. policymakers’ understanding of the weight of U.S. policies in Iraq on U.S.-Turkish relations. It seems as long as the United States remains in Iraq, Iraq is likely to be at the heart of U.S.-Turkish relations whether the issue is sending Turkish combat troops to Afghanistan or the ongoing missile shield negotiations.