How Turkey’s Soft Power Can Aid NATO in Afghanistan
Aydemir Erman was Turkey’s special coordinator for Afghanistan from 1991 to 2003 and remained involved as an adviser in Afghanistan until his retirement from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009.
Istanbul—At the recent London Conference on Afghanistan, the United States, its NATO allies and Afghanistan’s regional neighbors agreed to more closely align civilian and military efforts to stabilize that nation so foreign forces can withdraw and local Afghan forces can take over security. On the civilian side, a new emphasis was placed on the key importance of building up Afghan institutions that can attract the allegiance of those who now stand with the Taliban.
As an historically trusted friend of the Afghan people, Turkey, alone among members of the NATO alliance, has a “soft power” ingredient in its arsenal that is key to winning the hearts and minds of the population.
It is said in Afghanistan that “no Afghan was ever killed by a Turkish bullet” and “no Afghan trained by Turks has ever betrayed his country.”
Turks have aided the Afghan government and its people since the days of Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, the “Iron Amir” who unified the country during his reign from 1880 to 1901 and embarked on a path of modernization. Afghanistan was the second country to recognize modern Turkey in 1921 after the USSR. Modern Turkey was instrumental in establishing the military academy, medical school, Kabul University and its faculty of political sciences, the music conservatory and the public health service of Afghanistan.
Good relations between Turks and Afghans are based on three factors:
First, we do not share a common border and thus have no disputes on that score.
Second, as a young republic that was a successor to a great empire, Turkey never displayed any imperial overtones as it embraced the young Afghan nation, which had suffered at the hands of the British and Russian empires, after independence. Undergoing its own process of modernization at the time, Turkey treated Afghanistan as an absolute equal. We never had a special agenda and had relations with all elements of the Afghan nation.
Third, we share in common the religion of Islam.
Unlike many other members of the international community, Turkey did not neglect Afghanistan in the years preceding 9/11 but was silently active.
In my contacts with the Taliban during those years as Turkey’s special coordinator for Afghanistan, we pulled no punches. I explicitly told the Taliban leaders that we would not extend recognition to their regime. Turkey recognized the rump government of President Barhanuddin Rabbani that remained in only a small part of Afghanistan, mainly Badakshan Province and the Panshir Valley, until he was replaced by Hamid Karzai after the Taliban were driven from power by the US after 9/11.
We openly criticized the Taliban’s lack of governing capacity, their profiteering from the opium trade, their support for terror organizations like al-Qaida and their treatment of their own people.
Despite all this criticism, the Taliban nonetheless gave my colleagues and me free access to travel the country. I was always respected and we were able to perform humanitarian work all over the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan. I was told on several occasions by the Taliban leaders that as much as they may scorn my remarks, as a Turk I was welcomed.
Shaped by our historical relationship with all parts of Afghan society, Turkey’s involvement there since 9/11 has quite consciously been a matter of “soft power projection.”
As a NATO ally true to its obligations, Turkey sent troops to Afghanistan after 9/11 on the condition that they would not take part in combat operations. Despite pressure from allies, Turkey sticks strictly to this policy. Our presence in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, has been based on treating people with respect and as equals, not with paternalism or the imperial arrogance of an occupying power.
Turkish troops deployed to Kabul have been under strict orders to treat Afghans with dignity. They have never broken into homes. Most patrols are conducted on foot and not in armored carriers. Troops wear no sunglasses in order to maintain eye contact. Touching women is totally taboo. Medical personnel serve Afghan people as well as their own forces. Turkish troops have thus not only contributed to the security of Kabul but became an unobtrusive part of Afghan daily life.
In the critical province of Wardak, Turkey today is also operating the only civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Generally, PRTs are operated by NATO soldiers. Since 2006, the Turkish government has spent $20 million in the province funding a police training academy, building schools, restoring a mosque and setting up a medical clinic.
Halim Fedai, the governor of Wardak province, has said: “The Turkish programs are very well received and readily accepted by Afghans because they work within Afghan culture. They are sensitive to Afghan values. We have very good, strong, historical relationships with Turkey.”
Clearly, the crescent and star have once again proven as reliable a trademark in Afghanistan today as in the past. Because of this success, the Turkish government will soon set up another PRT elsewhere in Afghanistan.
The Turkish lesson in Afghanistan is clear: Winning hearts and minds requires better understanding and respect for local values. Handing out cans of soda with colonial airs won’t yield tangible results.
For many of these same reasons—our historical relationships in the region and deep understanding of local values and cultures—Turkey may be one of the few countries, if not the only country, that can bring Afghanistan and Pakistan together to sort out their differences.
President Karzai made a point at the London Conference of stressing Turkey’s mediating role, following upon the “trilateral” Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan meeting he had earlier attended in January in Istanbul with Pakistani President Asif Zardari. Unfortunately, India’s absence so far in this process has weakened the Turkish initiative. It is critical to get them on board because the Afghan problem cannot be solved unless India and Pakistan come to terms over their interests in Afghanistan.
The international community in general, and the allies in particular, should lend their support to Turkey and not duplicate its efforts elsewhere.
Turkey’s NATO membership and historical soft-power capacity can make a critical difference in Afghanistan. Those who know and are trusted historically by the Afghan people can show the way for those who truly want to help the Afghans stand on their own feet.
If NATO sticks to a clear mandate within a defined timeframe for withdrawal, and the international community allocates sufficient resources, Afghanistan can be brought back into the fold of the international community. Turkey helped them join the world when Afghanistan was a young nation. It can do so again today.