Debate over Afghan presence should not dissuade Turkey from commitment to NATO

Debate over Afghan presence should not dissuade Turkey from commitment to NATO

As the NATO summit in Chicago approaches, it is almost certain that Afghanistan will figure prominently on the agenda. Serious questions have been raised about the immediate and longer-term future of the presence of United States and NATO troops in Afghanistan in the wake of the recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. After the deaths of 12 Turkish soldiers in a helicopter crash near Kabul on March 16, concerns have also been raised in Turkey about the continuing presence of Turkish forces in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The latest developments have significantly increased the importance of the NATO summit, scheduled for May 20-21. 

The next phase of NATO’s military and political role in Afghanistan will be discussed in Chicago. President Hamid Karzai’s reaction to the killing of the Afghan civilians, following the earlier burning of copies of the Quran by U.S. troops, may yet jeopardize NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. The Afghan leader demanded that coalition forces pull back from villages to their bases, though this would impair the combat role of U.S. and NATO forces. It is now unclear whether the Obama administration will be able to conclude a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan before the Chicago Summit. Washington had been hoping to secure guarantees from Kabul that it would be able to maintain possibly four or five bases in Afghanistan after the “withdrawal” of forces by the end of 2014. In addition to training Afghan security forces, these bases could also be used to mount counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.

Problems between the U.S. and Afghan governments and the recent helicopter crash have legitimately led opposition politicians in Ankara to question Turkey’s role in Afghanistan. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli urged a Turkish withdrawal. Turkey has commanded ISAF operations in Afghanistan on four occasions since 2002, though Ankara has insisted that its forces not be involved in combat against Islamist militants. At present, Turkish forces are overseeing the coalition’s regional command in Kabul; more than 1,800 troops from the 28th Mechanized Brigade are providing training for Afghan units, and Turkish forces are also helping two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern and northern Afghanistan. Visiting the Turkish capital in February on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Turkey’s membership of NATO, alliance Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed his gratitude for Turkey’s “steadfast commitment” to the ISAF operation. Stressing that Turkey is a “vital member” of NATO, Rasmussen also praised the important role the country plays for the alliance in North Africa and in the Middle East. 

In spite of these events, the ruling party in Ankara should remain committed to Turkey’s role in Afghanistan. With Turkish troops not engaged in combat missions but rather involved in training and reconstruction projects, unlike in other NATO countries, public opinion in Turkey has been largely supportive of the country’s humanitarian role in Afghanistan. So far, the helicopter crash has not caused a shift in this opinion. However, this could change if there are further instances of Turkish casualties. 

In the run-up to the NATO summit, it is quite likely that the government in Ankara will continue to emphasize the important role Turkey plays for the alliance not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere. The meeting in Chicago will cover other issues, such as missile defense and developments in Syria and Iran. As Rasmussen’s recent visit to Ankara demonstrated, alliance officials are fully aware of the crucial role Turkey may play in each of these issues.

Far from drawing back from its increasingly visible role in NATO affairs, the Turkish government should pursue a more transparent policy, informing Parliament and the public about all aspects of the cooperation with the alliance. The importance of Turkey’s role in assisting in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, as well as other humanitarian missions, should be emphasized. In these difficult times for NATO, it is all the more important that Turkey reinforce its commitment to the alliance.

*Cenk Sidar is the managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory and research firm. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group.