Turkey's move to commit troops to ground operations in Afghanistan is designed to win Ankara a larger role in shaping the country's post-Taliban development.
On November 1, Turkey said it would send 90 Special Forces troops to northern Afghanistan to train anti-Taliban fighters and support aid operations. Military officials also said their troops might also engage in combat.
The announcement is part of an overall Turkish diplomatic effort to become a major player in Afghanistan's political future. Turkey, which maintains a secular Islamic state, was one of the first Muslim countries to rally to the United States' side after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Since then, Ankara has reiterated its "unconditional support," making available the use of its airspace and military bases. The Turkish Parliament on October 10, despite objections from Islamic opposition politicians, authorized the government to send troops abroad to assist the United States in the war against terrorism.
Turkey's decision to send troops to Afghanistan provides a needed boost for the anti-terrorism coalition. The US bombing campaign has so far not led to the collapse of Taliban resistance, as many strategic planners had originally expected.
Pakistan also is welcoming the Turkish military commitment. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer recently visited Pakistan on a two-day visit, during which he explored cooperation possibilities with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Sezer's visit may have paved the way for the Turkish deployment in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar declared recently that some Muslim countries, including Turkey, should contribute troops to a possible United Nations peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. Turkey has participated in NATO peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia, which have large Muslim populations.
However, United Nations diplomats believe that Turkey's Muslim troops would not necessarily facilitate the task of rebuilding Afghanistan. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative to Afghanistan, noted recently that outside forces have historically not had success in winning over the confidence of the Afghan people, who are fiercely independent.
Even Turkish officials privately admit that they will likely have limited influence over the Islamic states in general, many of which view Turkey as too pro-Western and as an ally of Israel in Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Two other factors hinder Turkish participation in the anti-terrorism coalition. First, powerful domestic Islamic groups, supported by a large majority of the population, disapprove of the American military campaign in Afghanistan. Second, Turkey's economy is struggling to overcome a fiscal crisis. [For background see the EurasiaNet economic archives].
The Turkish government, which is already deeply unpopular due to the ongoing economic crisis, is anxious to minimize public discontent over its support for the United States. Mindful of such an opposition, the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, is treading carefully, balancing any words of support for Washington with calls to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. The government recently decided to cooperate with the French non-governmental organization ACTED (translated as Aid for Technical Cooperation and Development) to build 10,000 shelters in Afghanistan.
Ecevit has also made it clear that Turkey opposes the possibility of expanding the anti-terrorism campaign to attack Iraq. Ankara is concerned that Saddam Hussein's ouster could lead to the division of Iraq, and the founding of a Kurdish state, which would pose a challenged to Turkey's strategic interests.
Antoine Blua is a freelance writer who specializes on Central Asian affairs.