On the eve of the NATO foreign and defense ministers meeting in Brussels and weeks before the NATO Chicago summit, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker warned Iran about its policy vis-à-vis Turkey and said they would pay “a price they won't like if they push Turkey.”
Speaking to Today's Zaman from Kabul by phone, Crocker said Iranians would make a terrible mistake by pushing Turkey too hard when commenting on the escalation of tension between the two countries with regard to differences concerning Syrian policy. Called America's “Lawrence of Arabia” by former US President George W. Bush, Crocker attended high school in İzmir and served as ambassador in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan and currently Afghanistan.
Weeks before the Chicago summit, where Afghanistan will be discussed extensively, Crocker praised Turkey’s role in the country, hoping Ankara would maintain its presence on the ground. On the domestic political debate on whether Turkey should keep its forces in Afghanistan, which was started by the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the American ambassador said it was part of the democratic discussion and was no different from that in his own country.
While supporting Turkey’s position on Syria, the American ambassador ruled out any military intervention in the country, arguing that no one was in favor of such action.
Crocker shared the following views with Today’s Zaman readers:
You will be discussing Afghanistan at the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21. What are your expectations from Turkey?
Turkey has been a wonderful partner and ally in Afghanistan right from the beginning. Turkish command of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] at one stage I think was a critical step and reflects again Turkey’s committed role as a NATO member and a committed ally of the United States. We’ve been together in good times and bad ever since the Korean War, and we’re together again.
Turkey’s role here, both military and civilian, has made a major, major difference. You’ve been an extremely generous donor. I understand that this is your largest foreign assistance program ever, and it makes a difference. We’re talking to governments internationally, including the government of Turkey, over how we as an international community might ensure the sustainment of Afghan national security forces beyond 2014. I know that Ankara has under consideration what role it might play. But again, I would just like to emphasize my profound appreciation for the role that Turkey already has played.
I’m a little bit biased because my father was in the US Air Force, and I went to high school in İzmir, so I’ve always felt a special attraction to Turkey.
There’s a discussion in Turkey. The leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, has already questioned the presence of Turkish troops in Afghanistan after 12 Turkish troops were killed in a helicopter crash. The mood is changing in a negative way.
We’re having the same debate in the United States, as you know. That’s part of a democratic society, whether in Turkey, in the US or elsewhere. But I think Turks more than most understand what’s at stake here. You have deep historical ties with Afghanistan. In addition to the contributions I mentioned, your political and economic coordination efforts such as the recent İstanbul Conference I think demonstrate that the government understands that Afghanistan is important.
None of us want to see a situation develop such as it did following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 where the international community basically turned her back on Afghanistan, the country collapsed into civil war, the Taliban took charge and invited in al-Qaeda; for us, it was the road to 9/11. The Taliban and al-Qaeda would like nothing better than the chance to reoccupy Afghanistan, and we just can’t let that happen. Again, I think Turkey, because of its geographic proximity and its long history of engagement with Afghanistan, understands that better than most.
The high number of civilian casualties and the burning of the Quran -- though accidentally -- have created the impression that the US has not done its best to respect the lives of civilians and is not respecting Afghans and their traditions. People are concerned that the US officer who killed 16 Afghan civilians will not be punished properly. Some even argue that the US presence has done more harm than good in Afghanistan.
I would say that anyone who makes the latter point hasn’t talked to many Afghans recently. The greatest concern that Afghans with whom we have regular contact express about the US military presence isn’t that we’re here but that we may be leaving. So it’s simply not the case that Afghans would rather have US forces gone. It’s quite the contrary.
We have had several very unfortunate incidents -- the shootings and the accidental mishandling of the Qurans. But I would also note that out of adversity sometimes come positive things. The Afghan response to these incidents I think demonstrates the strength and resilience of our bilateral relationship. Our high level contacts continue. Our negotiations on a Strategic Partnership Agreement continue. We carried forward with our very numerous bilateral programs. We have developed I think again enough strength in our relationship, both at the official and at popular level, to be able to ensure that these kinds of incidents are never again repeated.
You also served in Iraq, you know Turkey, and the general perception of US operations both in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the US has helped Iran to be influential in both countries. Do you think the American strategic planning was poor, and most people think Iran is now the winner at the end of the day?
The fact is that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we engaged the Iranians because we saw a potential area of cooperation between us, although we differed on so many other things over Afghanistan. The Taliban was our enemy, and the Taliban was, of course, Iran’s enemy. They almost went to war in 1999. In fact, for some period of time we did have reasonably effective cooperation with the Iranians. I know it because I led the US side. These were not clandestine talks, but they were discreet. We tried the same thing in Iraq but without success. It turned out to be the Iraqis who stood up to the Iranians when Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki used his military against the Iranian-based militia Jaysh al-Mahdi.
So no, I don’t think the Iranians are the strategic winners here. You know better than anyone, Turkey knows better than anyone the deep divisions between Iraq and Iran in the aftermath of that awful eight-year ground war. Again, you understand that, as many in my country do not, that simply because the government is now led by a Shiite prime minister does not mean that he takes his direction from Tehran -- quite the opposite. He is a very proud Arab and a proud Iraqi nationalist.
Iran is increasingly taking a hostile position with Turkey in particular because of Turkey’s Syrian policy. How concerned is the United States?
I just speak from my own personal experience. The Iranians would be making a terrible mistake to push Turkey too hard. Turkey definitely knows how to push back very, very effectively, and I think the Iranians are smart enough to understand that they had better stay within some pretty careful limits or they will pay a price they won’t like, shall we say.
People are speculating that Syria could be the next Afghanistan, with the United States preparing to leave Afghanistan. And people in Turkey think Western allies, including the United States, as the American elections are looming, are leaving Turkey alone to deal with the bloodshed in Syria.
We have taken a very firm position on the violence that the Syrian government is inflicting on the Syrian population right from the beginning. As you know, we sought a strong resolution in the Security Council. Unfortunately, we were blocked by China and Russia, which I think was an unfortunate mistake. But we have been clear that this kind of conduct by a government against its people is unacceptable. We have joined with you in rallying international support against the regime. We have called on Bashar al-Assad to step down, as you have. What we are not prepared to do and what I don’t think the region, including Turkey, would really want us to do would be to actually commit US forces to Syria. Our people would never support it. I don’t think the region would support it, and I think it could be distinctly counter-productive. Our two governments remain in very close consultation on this. There was strong international support for the position that Turkey was among the first to stake out, so by no means should Turkey feel isolated in this endeavor. We’ll stand together here as we have stood together in so many other places.
People are talking about Turkey being a model, a source of inspiration for the Arab Spring, for Muslim countries, even for Afghanistan. How credible do you think these debates are?
Turkey I think is a great example of a sustained institutionalized democracy in a Muslim country. I think therefore Turkey is a great example for these new orders that are emerging in parts of the Arab world as well as here in Afghanistan. I think Turkey has a very positive role to play in demonstrating how democracy can and should work in an Islamic country.
I hope very much that Turkey will sustain its major and positive role in Afghanistan. You know Afghanistan. Afghans have a strong affinity for Turkey for historical reasons as well as your positive engagement since 2001. I think in short, Turkey is both a great model but also a great partner for the US and the rest of NATO, and I know you’ll continue to play that role.