NATO’s Turkey in Afghanistan is needed

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspects the guard of honour as he walks the red carpet alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. PHOTO: AFP

KABUL— Turkey’s membership in the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization has been controversial and critical. Turkey is the only Muslim country to be a full NATO member, that also has the second biggest military after the U.S. It has significant strategic power since most of the current regional conflicts in the Middle East border with Turkey. In Afghanistan, Turkey’s role is critical as it was the only NATO member that did not reduce the number of troops at the end of NATO’s active combat role in 2014.

It was also in 2014 that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed Turkey’s Ismail Aramaz as NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan. Ambassador Aramaz was present at the launch and implementation of Resolute Support. He played an integral role in the transition of NATO’s combat responsibilities to a non-combat one.

In January of 2017, the Turkish parliament approved the extension of Turkish Armed Forces troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s support mission. The legislations also allowed the government to permit foreign army personnel to be transported to and from Afghanistan through Turkey.

In line with NATO, Ankara has also been deporting thousands of Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan as it continues to host military training for the Afghan Army in northern Afghanistan. Since January, Turkey has deported more than 17,000 Afghans, according to Afghan officials.

Even though Turkey is seen as a NATO rebel for refusing to send troops to Iraq and has recently developed close ties with Russia, Turkey has followed the European Union’s policy in Afghanistan. In 2016, the EU promised Afghanistan $1.5 billion annually and signed a deal with Kabul to take back Afghans who failed in their bid for asylum. Turkey’s immigration policy against Afghan refugees was agreed upon in Brussels.

As yet another international meeting commences in Brussels, the role of Turkey in NATO is bound to be challenged. It will be challenged mainly for its relations with Russia. President Erdogan is pursuing a deal to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia which is a problem for NATO members states on many levels, including that the missile system is not compatible with NATO’s defense systems.

However, even so, it is likely that Turkey will remain a strategic political player in the region and hold its membership in NATO.

NATO cannot afford to lose Turkey, especially now that President Erdogan is completely in charge of the Turkish military after Turkey’s National Security Council and Supreme Military Council have been abolished. Pushing Turkey out of NATO will be a win for Russia and a loss for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan needs Turkey more than ever as it has significant leverage over Vice President General Rashid Dostum, who happens to be in exile in Turkey. Most importantly, by continuing to being part of the NATO, Afghanistan needs Turkey to support the Afghan led peace process with Taliban.

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