Turkey and Afghanistan
JAMES B. CUNNINGHAM*Few relationships can claim such a close religious, cultural and historical bond as that between Turkey and Afghanistan. It is often said that “Turkey is Afghanistan’s closest neighbor, without a common border.”
Afghanistan was the second nation to recognize the new Turkish state in 1923 and few other nations have such a special relationship. At a time of great challenge and opportunity for Afghanistan, Turkey, as a member of NATO and a leader in the Islamic world, is uniquely placed to play an important role in responding to the desires of the Afghan people to secure the future of their country. Turkey has been and I trust will continue to be an important partner for the United States, Afghanistan and the international community in promoting security and stability in a region plagued by the threat of violent extremism.
Fourteen years after 9/11, the threat from terrorism by groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan has morphed into a threat from a network of extremists residing in a band of crisis that runs from Asia across the Middle East to Africa. An October 14 Atlantic Council report on Afghanistan and U.S. Security, co-signed by a bi-partisan group of 28 former senior U.S. officials and policy experts, seeks to place Afghanistan in this broader context and supports the continued U.S. engagement, including a military presence at or near current levels, required to increase the possibilities for Afghan success. The report argues that Afghanistan can succeed if the necessary international support remains, and if the Afghan government performs and demonstrates achievement to the Afghan people and Afghanistan’s international partners. That international engagement must be part of a long term, multilateral and multifaceted strategy and effort to deal with the threat to our way of life and our people from violent extremism and the terror it spawns. If such a strategy is to succeed, the Islamic world must have a lead role. Turkey should be an increasingly important and major actor in this effort, in defense of Turkish interests in Afghanistan and beyond.
Turkey’s long-standing support for Afghanistan, dating from the foundation of the Republic, is to be applauded, as is the decision last month by President Obama to extend the US military presence in Afghanistan and “…not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.” The President’s decision makes clear U.S. forces are not leaving for some time to come, and that there will be a continuing, significant U.S. military effort after 2016 in support of the Afghan forces and government. The United States will continue to work with its Turkish and other NATO and international partners to enable Afghan forces to secure their country, and to defeat terrorism.
Turkish engagement and leadership in Afghanistan can also boost the prospects for economic growth – almost as important to the future of Afghanistan as security – and for the pursuit of peace. There is clearly a need for regional actors to play a more active and constructive role in the region, and Turkey, in President Ghani’s words, is well positioned to be “an example of peace and stability in the world of Islam." That is a crucially important example. Ultimately, solutions to the violence and destruction of Al Qaida and Daesh must be found within the Islamic world and go beyond the use of military force.
That is the long term challenge Americans, Turks, Afghans and our partners around the world face. As Americans, we are confronted with complexities which we as outsiders cannot resolve alone. That is one of the key lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan, with the help of Turkey and other partners, is ready to play a role by and for itself. Afghanistan should become a contributor to security and stability in its region and the Islamic world, rather than a threat. That will require strong cooperation from partners around the world and a regional vision where Turkey is playing an important role in encouraging sustained progress in Afghanistan, and in draining the energy from the extremist ideology which plagues the Islamic world and poses a threat to all of us.
*Ambassador James B. Cunningham is the Zalmay Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan at the Atlantic Council.