Turkish-U.S. Relations on Rocky Ground over Role in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 6

Relations between the United States and Turkey encountered a new obstacle in recent days. The latest disagreement comes, somewhat surprisingly, amid a period of overall warming and increased military and diplomatic cooperation between the two long-time NATO allies. The obstacle comes in the form of a request by the United States for an increase in the number of Turkish troops committed to the Afghan theater of operations. Most important is a request to change the mission of those troops from a presence only in and around Kabul to deployment in Afghanistan’s south and east, and from permission to fire only in self defense to a more active role in combat missions against al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban. The Turkish press has called the request a quid pro quo for U.S. real-time intelligence assistance in Turkey’s campaign against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq (Hürriyet, February 8). Following cordial meetings between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Bush last November and additional sessions with other high-ranking Turkish figures such as President Abdullah Gül and General Ergin Saygun, deputy chief of the Turkish Armed Forces, the United States began providing real-time intelligence on PKK activities and positions to the Turkish military (Turkish Daily News, November 9, 2007). Subsequent pinpoint bombing missions by the Turkish Air Force were successful in reducing the PKK threat to Turkey (Today’s Zaman, February 7).

The U.S. request for an alteration in the mission of Turkish troops in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the context of vital U.S. assistance against the PKK, will likely be viewed by Turkey as unreasonable at this time, at least partly due to existing Turkish military commitments in its fight against the PKK in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq (BBC, February 8).

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was assembled for a long-term presence in the country. ISAF now numbers 42,000 troops in Afghanistan, with contingents from all 26 NATO member nations as well as Australia and a number of other non-NATO members (Afghan News, January 30). Turkey has promoted its interests over the years by contributing military forces to efforts outside its borders alongside its NATO allies. At least partly in pursuit of its drive to join the European Union, for example, Turkish troops served in Kosovo as part of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (Zaman, September 23, 2006). Turkey is the only Muslim nation with troops under the NATO flag in Afghanistan, though non-NATO members Albania and Jordan both provide small ISAF contingents. Turkey has twice led ISAF in Afghanistan and its 1,000-plus troops are engaged primarily in the reconstruction and enhancement of Afghanistan’s infrastructure as well as the training of Afghan police forces.

It should also be noted that Turkey is not the only NATO ally balking at an expanded role in Afghanistan. Germany, Italy and Spain have also rebuffed the U.S. request to send additional forces to augment troops from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, which currently see most of the combat in Afghanistan’s restive southern provinces (Alalam, February 9). The refusals are made more serious by the Canadian threat to pull its 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan when its present mandate expires in 2009 unless other NATO allies take on a greater share of the fighting in the south (Toronto Star, February 9).

The resurgence of the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan—coupled with the refusal of several NATO allies to allow their troops to deploy to the south—presents a frustrating situation for military commanders there. With 26,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan as either part of ISAF or under independent U.S. command, Washington is well aware of the strong hand it brings to negotiations with Turkey, considering the latter’s need to locate and track PKK guerrillas in support of Turkish military operations.

The PKK’s 2007 campaign against Turkey enjoyed considerable success, with a multi-front strategy that combined urban attacks in Turkey’s cities with hit-and-run guerrilla attacks in the southeast (see Terrorism Focus, November 6, 2007). Added to the latter campaign was an increased PKK use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a tactic that resulted in a rising number of killed and wounded Turkish troops that alarmed both ordinary Turkish citizens and the national leadership, civilian and military. The U.S. decision to give real-time intelligence on northern Iraq to the Turkish military resulted in considerable discontent among the political leadership in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq.

In turn, Turkey’s position and initial response to the United States should come as no surprise to Washington. As noted, it required and continues to require considerable courage for Turkey to provide military forces to a largely Western and non-Muslim occupation of a Muslim nation. Turkey is, in effect, walking a religious and cultural tightrope through its participation in ISAF. Weighing heavily on the side of providing additional troops is al-Qaeda’s decision to carry out a series of bombing attacks in Istanbul in 2003 that killed almost 60 people and wounded nearly 700 (see Terrorism Focus, June 12, 2007). Turkey undoubtedly appreciated the U.S. decision to provide actionable intelligence on the PKK at a time when its troops were being killed and wounded in mounting numbers, but may remain unreceptive to this new appeal unless the United States explicitly decouples the enhanced intelligence capability from the request for more troops in Afghanistan.

Given the stakes for the United States, the tough negotiations over the NATO/ISAF mission in Afghanistan have just begun, with other NATO allies as well as with Turkey. After making a general appeal for additional troops across the entire NATO community, the United States appears to have chosen Turkey as the “best-chance” ally to focus on for immediate results. Turkey’s success against the PKK since real-time intelligence made it possible to hit targets in Iraq with pinpoint precision is a considerable inducement in the ongoing discussions, especially as spring approaches—the traditional season for the commencement of another PKK campaign.