While the Turkish military helicopter crash near the Afghan capital last week that killed 12 Turkish soldiers stirred debate in Turkey over the necessity of Turkish troops in the war-torn country, many experts believe Turkey needs to maintain a presence in many countries in order to protect its national interests, business and otherwise.
“The most important challenge for Turkey is to create a brand name for itself. You cannot separate the economy from politics, the marketing brand value of your country from the perception and image in public opinion. To enhance your brand value, you have to open up to the world and become engaged in issues that matter to you the most. Therefore you need to send troops if necessary to keep the peace in conflict areas as well as to promote your brand value,” İbrahim Öztürk, professor of economics at the İstanbul-based Marmara University, told Sunday’s Zaman.
“I am sure if you ask the people in Lebanon, Kosovo and Bosnia, they will say they would rather see Turkish troops stay there as part of the multinational task force to keep the peace,” he underlined, adding that other major powers are using troop contingencies in foreign lands as part of their power projections.
As part of its commitments to the UN and NATO, Turkey sent troops to South Korea (December 1950), Somalia (December 1992 and February 2009), Bosnia (December 1992), West Bank (February 1997), Albania (April 1997 and July 1998), Kosovo (October 1998), Afghanistan (October 2001), Congo (June 2006), Lebanon (September 2006) and Libya (March 2011). It still maintains a troop presence in some of these countries. Turkey has also sent troops to Cyprus and Iraq on its own using the rights that exist in the Zurich and London Agreements of 1959 as a guarantor state in the former and hot-pursuit rights across the border in the fight against terrorism in the latter case.
According to Article 92 of the constitution, it is Parliament that holds the authority to allow the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to be deployed on foreign soil or a foreign military force to be based in Turkey. Turkish governments have obtained 35 resolutions from Parliament so far under this article, though a few of them were just precautionary ones and have never been used.
The last resolution Parliament approved was an extension for the deployment of naval vessels to help a NATO mission fight piracy along Somalia’s vast and lawless coastline for another year, on Jan. 25, 2012. In July 2011, Parliament approved a government request to extend for one year the Turkish military mission with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for the fifth time since 2006. The government has already signaled that it may seek authorization for Syria as well if the civil war escalates into a full-blow war in the region.
“Turkey is in Afghanistan to fulfill its legal responsibility under the NATO alliance agreement. With troops that have no mandate for a combat mission, you are standing by the Afghan people. You also take part in international peacekeeping missions for strategic reasons as well,” Rıdvan Karluk, dean of the faculty of economics and international relations at Anadolu University, told Sunday’s Zaman. “What is more, the historical and cultural ties that go way back with Afghans require you to be there,” he added, dismissing opposition parties’ questions concerning the Afghan mission as “hastily made statements devoid of logic.”
Opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli said in a statement last week that the latest incident in Afghanistan, escalating violence in the war-torn country and the latest developments, which he described as “provocative,” all make it necessary to “reconsider our military presence there.” “The Turkish military did not go to Afghanistan to legitimize the occupation [of Afghanistan]. … We already have many problems, it is meaningless to lose lives elsewhere,” he said.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has also taken the crash as an opportunity to criticize the government for the Turkish mission in Afghanistan. “What are we doing in Afghanistan?” CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asked on Sunday. CHP Aydın deputy Bülent Tezcan submitted a petition to Parliament, demanding Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan answer a series of questions about the mission in Afghanistan, ranging from Turkish causalities so far to the ongoing investigation into the accident.
Turkey has about 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and leads NATO operations in Kabul province. The force has suffered relatively few casualties because of its noncombatant role. In 2009, two Turkish soldiers, one of them a colonel, were killed in a traffic accident in northern Afghanistan. The crash was the deadliest in Afghanistan for NATO forces since August when 30 American troops died when a Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down in Wardak province in the center of the country. It was the deadliest one for Turkey since 2001 when troops were first deployed there.
Erdoğan has rebuffed criticism by the opposition and defended Turkish missions in Afghanistan and other countries. “You can be a great country if you have great goals. Our military presence abroad is a symbol of peace, brotherhood and confidence. How can you say Turkey should question its presence in Afghanistan? Those who have a broad vision should be proud of our military presence abroad,” Erdoğan said on Wednesday during his Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) parliamentary group meeting.
“Who will be there if not Turkish soldiers?” Erdoğan asked, adding, “Everyone should act responsibly and conscientiously in order to avoid using the Afghanistan martyrs for political purposes.”
Hikmet Çetin, NATO’s former top civilian official in Afghanistan and a former foreign minister, also maintained that nobody can question the legitimacy of the presence of Turkish troops in foreign countries. “Turkey sent troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Lebanon and Afghanistan via decisions of Parliament and sanctioned by the UN and/or NATO,” he told Sunday’s Zaman, stressing that Turkey cannot stand by idly while so many things are happening in its region. “The fact that Turkey has the largest army in NATO after the US brings responsibilities for Turkey,” he said, recalling deep historical connections, especially with Afghanistan.
Çetin explained that Turkish troops in Afghanistan are not fighting the Taliban and not in the combat zone. Some troops provide security for provincial reconstruction teams Turkey has deployed in different parts of the country. “Turkey is poised to play an important role. Peace-building is not easy, and it takes patience and time,” he said, predicting that Turkish companies are best placed to reap the economic benefits once the country is stabilized. “Many Afghan officials used to come and tell me that they would rather see Turkish firms win the contracts there for reconstruction projects because Turkish firms finish projects on time, employ locals and deliver concrete results,” Çetin said. “If you take a risk during difficult times, the economic cooperation will bring very positive results when the situation is stabilized,” he added. Çetin predicted that Turks will be very much involved in the mining, agriculture and construction industries in Afghanistan.
AK Party Deputy Chairman Bülent Gedikli accused the critics, saying that these people who ask “Why are we in Afghanistan?” are in fact demanding that Turkey should adopt isolationist politics and become much more inner-oriented. “A country can only become a powerful player by generating values. Turkey has indeed generated new values for the international community and proved that Islam and democracy can very well be compatible in Muslim-majority countries.” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
Gedikli, an economist as well, pointed out the fact that local people are quite happy with the presence of Turkish troops, companies, schools, engineers and volunteers in these countries. “Turkey advocates justice, peace, democracy and stability in these countries. That is what we represent there, and people know about that,” he added. “The fact that our martyrs who fell in Afghanistan were engineers and technicians proved that Turkey is trying to help our Afghan brethren. Therefore, we have to look at the Turkish troop deployment from a broad perspective,” Gedikli stated.
In addition to troops, Turkey has also deployed police officers in a number of countries as part of training programs or part of its responsibility under a multinational organization such as UN. There are over 150 Turkish officers currently on peacekeeping missions in many countries, including Ivory Coast, Liberia, Congo, East Timor, Haiti and Sudan. Currently, 273 Turkish experts on the police force hold educational positions in police academies in 30 foreign countries, while about 400 foreign students attend training in Turkey’s Police Academy and higher vocational police schools.
According to a report published by the National Police Department in 2011, the department had offered training programs to 15,000 officers in 30 countries. The report indicates Turkey has so far trained 2,437 teaching experts in countries where it offers educational assistance to police departments, while 1,658 others were trained in fighting the narcotics trade. The government has also signed a number of bilateral training agreements in recent years mostly with African countries where the government is trying to boost its trade relations.
The bulk of training programs were allocated to the Afghan national police force, however. As part of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, Turkey started training officers in the Afghan police force at the Sivas Higher Vocational Police School. The first 500 Afghan students, all high school graduates, came to Sivas in 2010, and the target is to educate and train 15,000 Afghans there. Turkey has also been training regular officers from the police force of northern Iraq since September 2010 at the request of the leader of the Northern Iraqi Regional Administration, Massoud Barzani. It is no coincidence that most of the countries to which Turkey has offered assistance in police training are on the target list of priority countries with which Turkey wants to cultivate economic and political ties.