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TURKEY AT THE HELM



Published: Thu, May 2, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Toronto Globe and Mail: Crisis offers opportunity. Certainly that's how Turkey must regard its agreement, formally announced Monday, to take charge of the multinational security force in dangerously unstable Afghanistan. The risks for Turkey and its powerful military are considerable. But the rewards may also prove substantial.

Washington will assuredly be pleased to see Turkey replace Britain at the helm of the 18-nation coalition force of 4,500 troops, mostly deployed in and around Kabul. Western-oriented, with a mostly Muslim population but a strongly secular government, Turkey provides a role model of sorts for ravaged Afghanistan, with which it has long had ties. And when it assumes leadership of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), probably in June, Turkey will bolster the U.S. contention that the conflict in Afghanistan is a battle against terror, not a clash between Islam and the West.

Economic slump

Turkey has for months voiced concern about the cost of taking on such responsibilities, struggling as it is with a long-term economic slump so severe an International Monetary Fund rescue is under way. But in March, visiting U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney promised President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit that he would seek for them $200-million in congressional economic aid and $28-million in military aid. Since then, Ankara has also secured U.S. commitments to airlift support for ferrying troops in and out of Afghanistan and for new communications equipment.

Its six-month spell at the head of ISAF will be no cakewalk. As the sole Muslim member of NATO, and after stints in other multinational peace missions, Turkey is experienced at working alongside soldiers from other nations. The question is whether Turkey's ISAF partners will develop the same confidence. Afghanistan's complex policing operation is as political and diplomatic as it is military, and the Turkish military is notoriously secretive about sharing information. Its generals do not have much experience in dealing with the Western media. Neither does the human-rights record of those generals inspire confidence, particularly in Turkey's eastern Kurdish sector.

Should Turkey's mission prove successful, Ankara will chalk up useful points beyond its friendship with the United States. Aside from enhancing the army's status in Central Asia, such success would likely assist Turkey in its long-standing quest to join the European Union, deeply concerned though the EU remains about political and human rights in Turkey and the shortfalls of its market economy.

If things go badly for the Turkish military command, much will be on the line, not only in Afghanistan but at home. The military has long enjoyed strong public support among the country's 66 million people. But if its authority were to be seriously undermined by mishaps and international criticism, Turkey's stability would almost certainly be threatened as well.




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