Turkey Aims to Establish Itself as a Role Model in Afghanistan, Central Asia
Turkey's participation in the ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan is motivated in part by domestic considerations. By pledging 1,000 troops to a multinational stabilization force in Afghanistan, Ankara hopes to enhance its ability to attract Western assistance to help prop up the shaky Turkish economy, and to squeeze accession concessions out of the European Union. This view gained credibility in recent weeks, with the IMF pledging a further $10 billion in loans, and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reporting a warm reception at the EU's December summit meeting in Belgium.
But Turkey's Afghan ambitions appear to go beyond issues of short-term financial and diplomatic gain. Several observers assert that Turkey seeks to promote itself as a model for secular Islamic development. "For once Turkish foreign policy is being shaped by a clear strategy," a senior former diplomat says. "Ankara is determined to extend its reach in the region."
For the time being, Turkish diplomats are focusing on Afghanistan. Speaking to journalists after a mid-December visit to Kabul - during which Turkey became the second government after the United States to reopen its embassy to Afghanistan -- Foreign Minister Ismail Cem made it clear that Ankara was eager to help rebuild Kabul and the rest of the country. Cem also pledged support for restoring Afghanistan's collapsed health and education infrastructure, and promised to dispatch experts to help set up a children's hospital.
"By managing to avoid taking up combat responsibilities, while at the same time seeking to assume a frontline role in the reconstruction effort, Turkey has gained a significant advantage," says Fikret Bila, a leading commentator with the respected Milliyet newspaper.
Turkey is fully aware that its own ambitions dovetail with the strategic vision for Afghanistan of the United States and its European allies. Says Bulent Eczacibasi, a leading industrialist and spokesman for Turkish business: "The Turkish model of a secular democratic state is a very positive one for dealing with the (Islamic extremism) symbolized by September 11. There is no other modern, democratically run country anywhere in the Islamic world."
Turkish officials recognize that achieving their aims in Afghanistan will not be easy. Many in Ankara suspect that Russia and Iran are themselves both eager to establish a high-profile presence in Afghanistan, and are, therefore, working to minimize Turkish influence in Kabul. In this competition among regional powers, geography is working against Turkey. Both Russia and Iran have much shorter lines of communication with Afghanistan.
Russian pressure in particular is regarded as having been behind the Northern Alliance's resistance to a wider Turkish military presence than is currently being contemplated. Turkey has responded by seeking to develop ties with Pakistan, which is unhappy about what it sees as the anti-Pashtun bias of the Northern Alliance. Ankara also knows that its greatest trump card is the backing that it currently enjoys of the United States. The extent of Washington's interest in Afghan reconstruction could ultimately determine the success or failure of Turkey's Afghan ambitions.
Ali Erginsoy is a freelance journalist specialising in Turkish affairs.
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