Afghanistan has seen great tragedies, such as the Soviet invasion, civil war, a Taliban-led administration and US-led NATO operations over the last 35 years. Turkey has been one of the countries involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan under NATO’s scope in the post-2001 era. Needless to say, Turkey’s relations with Afghanistan have not improved only after these tragedies. The good relations between the two countries go back to the time of Turkey’s War of Independence, when Afghanistan became the first country that officially recognized the Ankara government. So in this context, the first agreements between Turkey and Afghanistan go back to the 1920s, and Turkey’s foreign aid to Afghanistan also started during those years. Perhaps the most important factors that have sustained healthy bilateral relations since then were the socio-cultural and religious similarities between the two countries.
Being the only NATO member with a Muslim majority population back then, Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan in the post-2001 era was of special importance. This sui generis position made Turkey an important actor in the eyes of the relevant regional and international powers on the Afghanistan issue. Although Turkey has never sent combat troops to Afghanistan, the responsibilities that it took under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission have always been appreciated by the United States and other NATO countries. On the other hand, the civil initiatives that the non-combatant Turkish soldiers participated in and the activities of several Turkish nongovernmental organizations were also praised and respected by the Afghan government and the Afghan people. At this point, the non-military or civil nature of Turkey’s foreign policy in the region put Turkey in a unique position in the context of Afghanistan.
Proof that Turkey’s presence is important
There are a few actions that have occurred that show the importance of Turkey’s presence in Afghanistan. They include the Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Summits, which were started in 2007 at the initiative of Ankara to contribute to building mutual trust between the two countries; the Istanbul Process, which began in 2011, on regional security and cooperation for a secure and stable Afghanistan; and Turkey’s leadership of the Kabul Regional Command since November 2009. Afghanistan became the top beneficiary of development assistance in the entire history of the Turkish Republic with the aid that has been delivered in the post-2001 era. With its participation in NATO’s deployment in Afghanistan, especially by sending non-combatant troops, Turkey has won the hearts and minds of the authorities and people of Afghanistan.
In this context, the appointment of Turkey’s ambassador to Afghanistan İsmail Aramaz as the next NATO Senior Civilian Representative (SCR) in Afghanistan by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, especially in the challenging post-2014 era, is quite important for Turkey. Another Turkish diplomat, former Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin, also served as the NATO SCR in Afghanistan for three years between 2003 and 2006.
Turkey will also become one of the Framework Nations that will serve in Afghanistan in the post-2014 era with the end of the ISAF mission and the beginning of the new NATO mission called Resolute Support Mission (RSM), which is to train, advise and assist the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). The status of being a Framework Nation, combined with Ambassador Aramaz’s appointment as the new NATO SCR, show the importance, trustworthiness and essential nature of Turkey for NATO with respect to Afghanistan.
The main two problems of the Transformation Decade (2015-2024), which would be a concern for the international actors as well, will be security and economy-related issues. Therefore, Ambassador Aramaz should have the very same two issues on the top of his agenda during his term as the top civilian official of NATO in Afghanistan since he will have to establish the link between the Afghan government, NATO and the United Nations.
One of the first and primary steps that needs to be taken, in terms of the economy, is to organize the foreign aid that comes to Afghanistan. The realization of the pledges made at conferences, where dozens of countries and international organizations gathered and talked about the future of Afghanistan, is very important due to the direct influence of the foreign aid on the Afghan economy. There is a potential risk that the desired attention might not be given to Afghanistan during the Transformation Decade with the withdrawal of the troops of most of the NATO countries and the Middle Eastern region becoming a very hot topic in the international media again. Another issue that should be on the economic agenda is the coordination of investments made in Afghanistan by nongovernmental organizations and private companies. These investments should be delivered without experiencing any kind of corruption and in a form that will have a positive impact on the daily life of the Afghan people. Even though the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promised to deal with the corruption issue, the topic for which former President Hamid Karzai received a lot of criticism, and Ghani’s position is encouraging, both NATO and the United Nations could play a role in the healthy coordination of non-state-led foreign aid and investment.
The security issue in the post-2014 era is also of great importance for Afghanistan, as it is directly correlated with the economy. The number of foreign troops has been decreased to less than 15,000 as a result of the bilateral security agreement signed with the US and the status of forces agreement signed with NATO. It is quite likely that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) might need the help of NATO troops in struggles with the Taliban in the near future. It needs to be taken into consideration that NATO might need to take a position beyond the current task, which is to “train, advise and assist the ANSF.” As the NATO SCR, Ambassador Aramaz should do preliminary work to create an emergency decision-making mechanism between NATO and the Afghan government, just in case it needs such interference. Besides, the number of NATO troops that will stay in Afghanistan in the post-2014 era might fall short of what is needed to fulfill its task. The current number of personnel in the ANSF is around 350,000 and they are relatively insufficient at many points. So, a similar preliminary work should be done on this issue, too, since the 15,000 NATO troops might not be enough for the near future.
Afghanistan has entered a critical period with the end of the transition process. Even during the time when the possibility of the international community losing interest in the country was talked about, the highest ranking officials of Turkey stated that Ankara would continue to take decisive steps and contribute to the future of Afghanistan. The appointment of Turkey’s ambassador to Kabul as the new NATO SCR is one of the many developments that show the commitment of Turkey on this issue. Indeed, Turkey’s continued presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is based on this basic policy line: “As long as Afghanistan continues its efforts to build a peaceful, safe and democratic country, Turkey will continue to help the Afghan nation reach that goal.”
*Salih Doğan is a research fellow at the Turkey Institute, a Ph.D. candidate at Keele University and a research assistant at Turgut Özal University.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily. Click here to go to the original.