Turkish Military Prepares to Strengthen its Forces in Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 131

New Foreign Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu (L)

Since Barack Obama declared that the U.S. government will prioritize restoring the international basis for its fight against al-Qaeda within Afghanistan, Turkey has emerged as a key source of support for this new approach. In March, before his appointment as foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu signaled that the Obama administration will enjoy improved bilateral relations with Turkey in contrast to the tension that has marred the relationship in recent years. Davutoglu said, "Our priorities mostly match those of the Obama administration. Obama appreciates Turkey’s foreign policy activities in the Middle East, South Caucasus, and Afghanistan" (Anadolu Ajansi, March 20).

It appears that in April, Washington requested additional Turkish troops in support of ISAF in Afghanistan. Davutoglu visited Washington in late March in his role as the chief advisor to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and claimed that the U.S. had expressed no interest in additional military support from Turkey (Anadolu Ajansi, March 20).

However, the Turkish press later reported that during his visit to Turkey in early April, Obama formally requested additional troops in support of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, and that Ankara had provisionally agreed to send 1,000 extra troops (Zaman, April 11). The head of the Washington-based American-Turkish Council (ATC), James Holmes, reaffirmed this U.S. request for support in Afghanistan (Hurriyet, April 9). It was unknown whether these Turkish forces might engage in combat operations or conduct peace support activities. On April 15, the influential daily Hurriyet reported that Ankara planned to send 10-15 Turkish officers as part of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) to assist in training the Afghan National Army (Hurriyet, April 15).

In late April the Turkish Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug stated that Turkey will take over the ISAF command in November. Italian and French brigades in Kabul, where Turkish troops are currently deployed, will be redeployed to regions in the east and south of the country. This gap will be filled by Turkish forces. Turkey will also seek additional troops from NATO, however, if the void cannot be filled by forces from other countries, Ankara will increase the size of its current deployment of around 800 troops in Afghanistan – with the caveat that they will not participate in any counter-terrorist operations (Zaman, April 29; EDM, June 16).

Reliable sources close to the Turkish military told Jamestown that Ankara is now finalizing preparations to send additional troops to Afghanistan. According to that plan around 70 troops will go to Afghanistan within ten to fourteen days in order to monitor and assist in the election process in August.

It appears that the first group of Turkish troops will arrive in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s plan to increase its forces ahead of the election scheduled for August 20. NATO’s outgoing Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, during his recent visit to Afghanistan announced the planned extension of ISAF forces: "We are bringing between 8,000 and 10,000 extra forces into Afghanistan on a temporary basis, to play a protection role" (www.turkishweekly.net, June 18).

Turkey plans to send approximately 600-700 additional troops to Afghanistan in November, Turkish military sources told Jamestown. Basbug confirmed that Turkey will hold the ISAF command in November. The Turkish military is now actively preparing to fill the gap, which will result from the redeployment of the Italian and French troops. Unless in the interim another NATO member country pledges to fill this gap, which is unlikely at this point, Turkey will increase its military commitment in Afghanistan from 800 troops to approximately 1500-1600.

In addition, Turkey will intensify its efforts to become more actively engaged in the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue. Therefore, November will be one of the benchmarks for Turkey’s increasingly high profile in the region. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi revealed in June that Islamabad and Ankara had agreed to hold a regional summit in Turkey in November, which will bring Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors together in order to develop a common vision on security, peace and economic development. Qureshi said that both sides had decided to enhance their relations in the textile and energy sectors as well as working on a free trade agreement (Xinhua News Agency, June 9).

Despite the fact that Turkish politics is currently focused on domestic politics and some analysts suggest that the government and the military are in conflict over internal issues, it appears that the Turkish armed forces are shifting their attention to preparing to promote Turkey’s interests in Afghanistan as part of the international coalition.