Turkey looks to stabilize Afghanistan, boost confidence in Af-Pak region

Turkey must do whatever it takes to help reconcile Afghanistan and Pakistan to ensure the fragile balance in the region does not fall apart, observers suggest, as a conference on Afghanistan in İstanbul slated for Nov. 2 approaches with great expectations from all sides.

Tied to a decision made at a recent meeting in İstanbul in June of the International Contact Group in Afghanistan, the Turkish, Afghan and Pakistani presidents will come together to attend a trilateral meeting on Wednesday. As part of a mechanism devised between the countries to bring a solution to conflicts in the region, Turkey primarily acts as an objective mediator, standing at a similar proximity from both countries with which it has close ties, and the international community expects a solid outcome from its intermediation to resolve the growing crisis between the brotherly nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although Afghanistan and Pakistan share ethnic and religious ties, as well as common strategic goals, tension has been growing between the countries, specifically along the border, known as the Durand Line, and has great implications for many countries, particularly the United States, Turkey and Iran. On Tuesday, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey will meet to come up with ways and means to bring sustainable peace and stability to the Af-Pak region, with economic cooperation between the three countries and reconciliation in Afghanistan expected to dominate the talks.

“Turkey has to come up with a solution to provide stability in Afghanistan, since it is a trusted partner for the country and is a solid link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with influence and proven goodwill on both sides,” Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, a professor of international relations at Gazi University in Ankara, told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview. Erol offered his view on the issue by stating first that the conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan was more complicated than one would think and had many angles since it concerned a large number of countries.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is to join President Abdullah Gül and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and will raise the issue of attacks by militants from Afghanistan on Pakistani territory during the trilateral summit, a foreign office spokesperson announced on Thursday in a written statement — a sign that the debate will heat up between the leaders.

Since the 1970s, when Soviet Russia invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has been engaged in a complicated web of relations with the country, the president of which consistently calls the two nations “twin brothers.” One of the most common arguments is that the US utilized the Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a tool to meddle in Afghan affairs to destroy the Soviet-backed government, but its weapon backfired as the ISI is now being held accountable for destabilizing Afghanistan, which is already on thin ice following decades of conflict during the Taliban rule that replaced Soviet influence and was toppled by the US after 9/11.

The Durand Line, an agreement that was signed more than a century ago between British India and Afghanistan, and now inherited by Pakistan after it partitioned from India, is one of the most critical issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan administration refrains from recognizing the agreement, since the line cuts through ethnic Afghan tribes and makes it possible for militant groups to take shelter to ready attacks against both countries, Pakistan asks for compliance with the agreement, although admitting that the more than 2,500-kilometer-long border is impossible to patrol.

“Pakistan is the first country to benefit from stability in Afghanistan,” Erol noted with regards to the border issues between the countries, but added that Pakistan was fearful of a military move from the US, which still controls Afghanistan. Once the US withdraws, the next steps to follow will be crucial, Erol stated, as he reiterated that the only forces within NATO to have a positive relationship with the Afghan people were Turkey’s.

Turkey has been stationed in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but refrains from armed combat and extends only humanitarian aid to the country. “Turkey draws its strength from the fact that it does not use weapons to solve the Afghan issue, but builds hospitals and schools,” Erol said, explaining Turkey’s positive role in the country, as he said that Turkey’s role would be more significant when the US withdraws from the country.

Pakistan is also worried about what will happen following the US’s projected withdrawal by 2014, since it needs to have a strong alliance with the Afghan government to ensure militant attacks from groups based along the border will be kept under Afghan control, and pressure from Iran and India does not increase. This was also the exact motivation of Turkey when it decided to take part in the trilateral solution, as it believed it could build confidence between the Afghan and Pakistani nations so that the NATO withdrawal does not lead to a disaster, with both nations turning into a battleground for surrounding countries to wage a war for dominance.

“In order to stabilize Afghanistan, Turkey needs to build strong economic relations with the country,” Sercan Doğan, an expert at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) stated. He noted that the country has been in a constant state of war for the last 30 years and that its economy is close to non-existent, with “arms and drug smuggling being normal and daily economic activities” of the country. In order to politically stabilize the region and build an Afghanistan that is a strong nation capable of controlling insurgency within and near its borders, Doğan noted in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman that Turkey should ensure the economy gets stronger in the region.

Turkey is already actively helping to build Afghanistan’s infrastructure and observers believe that as the country becomes connected to the rest of the world through diplomatic and economic ties, stabilization will become an easier goal. On the other hand, Turkey also needs to watch out for Palestinian political welfare in the region because since the capture of Osama bin Laden, the engineer of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pakistan has drawn the ire of the world, mostly of the US, and raised doubts whether the country was harboring terrorists and using terrorism as a means of getting its message across.

“Turkey should save Pakistan from the isolation it has entered since the bin Laden issue,” Doğan said, although he did express his belief that Pakistan had been moving closer to political stabilization since 2008. Doğan also suggested that Turkey could work at keeping communication lines open between Afghanistan and Pakistan so that the nations can work out their problems bilaterally. What happens in the next few years in Afghanistan will determine whether the region descends into chaos or finally becomes stable, both experts suggested. Apparently Turkey has a lot to say and do to help with the area becoming stable and next week’s conference will be another building block in this process.




30 October 2011, Sunday / CEREN KUMOVA, ANKARA