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Islam and Politics ( 2 Sept 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Turkish Involvement in Afghanistan

By Cem Sey

Wielding "Soft Power" for a Good Image

Although the AKP was critical of NATO's Afghanistan mission, Turkey remained part of it even after the party came to power in 2002. Turkey's main aim now is to introduce security to the country and assist with redevelopment. Cem Sey has the details

More than just a military campaign: in addition to combating al-Qaeda, Ankara is mainly interested in reconstructing the civilian infrastructure.

Ankara has been involved in the NATO operation in Afghanistan from the beginning. The decision was taken by the centre-left government under Bülent Ecevit following the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. A year later, the pro-Islam AKP came to power. Yet despite its much more critical stance on the NATO mission, it too continued Turkey's involvement in Afghanistan. Turkey even assumed leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) twice during this period.

From 2002, however, Ankara was keen to ensure that its own troops were not caught up in military action. The reason was not, as might be supposed, the potential loss to the Turkish army – there had been hardly any attacks on Turkish soldiers – instead Turkey sought to establish its involvement in Afghanistan in a historical context and to emphasise the countries' shared history.

This shared history began shortly after World War I. At that time, the Afghans came to the Turks' assistance. When the entente – the military alliance between the UK, France and Russia – sought to divide the areas of the Ottoman Empire settled by Turks into spheres of interest, King Amanullah Khan, the founder of modern-day Afghanistan, protested. He expressed solidarity with the emerging Turkish resistance in Anatolia under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk out of which the Turkish republic was born. It was a gesture that has not been forgotten to this day.

Over the following decades, Turkish doctors, officers, professors and teachers were sent to work in Afghanistan. Turkey helped found Kabul University, the Afghan military academy and the conservatoire.

Development aid workers instead of soldiers

Today 800 Turkish soldiers are stationed in the capital Kabul and in Wardak province. However, politicians from the ruling AKP party believe that the time for military action is over. "We would like NATO to establish security there and withdraw stage by stage," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the Turkish parliament's foreign policy committee and foreign affairs spokesperson for the AKP. "But our special relationship with Afghanistan may mean that we will develop a different approach, whatever the West does in the future."

The NATO outpost Incirlik in southern Turkey is a reloading point for the transportation of ISAF supplies to Afghanistan

When Turkish politicians and experts talk of "a different approach", the magic words "soft power" usually follow in close succession. What they mean is that Turkey wishes, for instance, to build more schools and hospitals. The Afghans are to be better educated and cared for. It is hoped that private Turkish firms will invest in Afghan infrastructure.

This direct aid would benefit the Afghan population directly and boost sympathy for Turkey amongst Afghans, says Kamer Kasim, professor of politics and member of the Turkish think tank USAK. "The schools founded by Turkey, the activities of Turkish firms ... this can all clearly be understood as 'soft power'. When these parties contribute to education and health there, it strengthens Turkey's good image in Afghanistan."

Tangible success

Every day, around 900 Afghans make use of the hospitals built by Turkey. All treatments are free. Over the last eight years, around 800,000 Afghans have benefitted from medical attention in this way. And in 34 Turkish-built schools, over 50,000 Afghan children are learning to read and write. Many of them are also learning Turkish.

But it is not to end there. Turkey wants to build another 35 clinics and schools. The aim is to win over ethnic minorities, which include many Turkic peoples, and therefore also Afghanistan for a Turkey-orientated policy in Central Asia.

Redevelopment in Herat: every day around 900 Afghans are treated in Turkish-built hospitals

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, emphasises that Turkey has economic as well as political interests in Afghanistan. In his book Strategic Depth, he places great significance on central Asia and Afghanistan. Not only does the region contain enormous natural resources, it is also very important from a Turkish perspective as a transport route for trade and fuel.

The latest infrastructure project is an example of how determined Turkey is to pursue its business interests: a railway is planned from Pakistan to Turkey via Afghanistan and Iran.

Turkey as a political guide

According to Professor Kasim, Turkey's political goal is the stability of Afghanistan and the overthrow of non-Afghan fighters – in other works al-Qaeda. Ankara sees itself as the mastermind of NATO's current strategy in Afghanistan, which was developed in Istanbul and later agreed on at the Afghanistan conference in London.

According to Foreign Minister Davutoglu, regular consultations between Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan can also be traced back to a Turkish initiative. These consultations have brought together heads of state, members of parliament, military leaders and the heads of the secret services of all three countries.

"Both Afghanistan and Pakistan trust Turkey. Neither of them question our good will," says Suat Kiniklioglu. And that is above all because Turkey does not have a history of colonialism in Afghanistan. This is why the Turkish dialogue initiative is so highly valued.

© Deutsche Welle 2010

Translated from the German by Steph Morris

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/