Canadian Analyst: We’d be smart to start listening to the Turks

Scott Taylor is an author and the editor of Esprit de Corps magazine.

To date in the federal election campaign, there has been little discussion about Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

The major combat commitment is due to end in July, but the Canadian army will continue to deploy up to 1,000 personnel to serve as trainers for the Afghan security forces until 2014.

When this three-year extension was first announced last November, the Harper government billed it as being a “behind-the-wire” training mission, and speculation was that the majority of the Canadian troops in Afghanistan would be based at some major complex in the vicinity of Kabul.

For those familiar with the deadly reality of Afghan insurgent tactics, it is already obvious that there is no such thing as a safe zone behind the wire.

As for the proposed location of the new Canadian mission, word has leaked out that most of our personnel will be in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, not Kabul.

It is true that this regional hub, located across the Hindu Kush mountain range from the volatile southern provinces, has not often been in the headlines over the past decade of NATO intervention. But on April 1, a protest in Mazar-e-Sharif denouncing a small Florida church’s burning of a Qur’an turned brutally violent. In the ensuing bloodbath, the angry mob overran the UN compound and hunted down and killed seven international aid workers.

Our soon to be deployed, lightly armed trainers will be heading into this complex and potentially volatile region of Afghanistan.

The good news is that we will not be alone. Already well-entrenched diplomatically in Mazar-e-Sharif is our NATO ally Turkey.

It’s important to note that of all NATO countries, Turkey is the only one that didn’t sever its ties to Afghanistan during the Taliban era.

In fact, since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the modern Turkish republic in 1923, Turkey and Afghanistan have maintained an uninterrupted exchange of military, religious, cultural and diplomatic envoys. Few Canadians realize that since 2002, Turkey has deployed more troops to Afghanistan than we have, and has yet to suffer a single fatality as a result of hostile fire. (Two Turkish soldiers were killed in a traffic accident.)

The Turks also maintain two provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), compared with Canada’s one in Kandahar, and their annual commitment of aid and reconstruction dollars is also about double ours.

While some smug Canadian pundits might try to diminish Turkey’s success in Afghanistan as being a result of its forces getting a soft area to operate in, this is not the case. In fact, the Wardak province in which the Turks work is considered a Taliban stronghold.

From the outset, the Turkish approach has been to provide regional reconstruction aid to the local authorities, regardless of their religious (i.e., Taliban) affiliation.

When Canada first announced in 2005 that we would be relocating our troops from Kabul to Kandahar with the dual role of combating the Taliban and establishing a PRT, the Turkish ambassador in Ottawa predicted we would fail.

And of all the experts I have met over the years, Ambassador Aydemir Erman knows Afghanistan better than anyone. He was born in Kabul while his father, a Turkish army officer, was stationed there as a trainer with the Afghan army.

During the Taliban era, Erman was Turkey’s special envoy to the region. As such, he knew personally not only the various Northern Alliance warlords but also many of the top Taliban political leaders.

In Erman’s opinion, Canada’s Kandahar approach of conducting combat operations in the same area where we are trying reconstruction was doomed to fail.

While no one in Ottawa was prepared to accept the Turks’ advice back in 2005, maybe now that we are relocating into an area where Turkey has long exerted significant influence, Canadian officials will be more open to accepting their guidance.

Scott Taylor