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Afghanistan: an urgent priority

Afghanistan is walking a tight rope, with the future of the country again in balance and uncertain. Taliban is making a comeback and violence is escalating while the security situation is deteriorating.

Drugs are still the mainstay of the economy, the masses remaining poor with little prospect of improvement in their lot. The NATO mission in the country could be facing failure and the Americans are worried. The state of affairs prevailing in the country calls for urgent attention by the international community to Afghanistan.

United States President Obama has declared the Afghan issue a top priority. Obama has promised to refocus U.S. efforts on Afghanistan. He talks of success in Afghanistan with at least two more U.S. combat brigades, more resources and training for the Afghan Army, and a comprehensive development strategy. He is also calling on his NATO allies for additional troop contributions with fewer restrictions on their deployment and utilization. The European Union is also reassessing its policies on Afghanistan and expressing a desire to work with the new U.S. administration. This is why a major international review of the Afghan situation now is both essential and opportune.

What is the Afghan problem?

Any evaluation of Afghanistan, to be useful and effective, must be comprehensive and not just limited to the security and military aspects of the situation. To do this, first the Afghan problem needs to be put in perspective. The Afghan issue is not merely an Afghan problem. It is part of a more critical nexus of issues of regional and global character. The fulcrum of a potential conflagration with global ramifications has probably shifted to the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India axis. In this context, the first point to take note of is the inextricability of the link between developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What the two countries do or refrain from doing regarding each other has powerful consequences for both. How Pakistan behaves also depends, on the other hand, very much on the state of its relations with India. A further fact is that in the context of the global competition for energy and other precious resources, Central Asia represents the next coveted prize. For the United States and the West, Afghanistan is the gateway to that geography. Finally, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan contemporary civilization and radical Islam are at war. The outcome has crucial implications not only for Muslim countries, but also for the rest of the world.

The priority, however, must always be the security and well-being of the Afghan people. It is because securing Afghanistan in both security and socioeconomic terms is also the key to any effort to stabilize the region.

Why the NATO mission should be revitalized
President Obama, even before his election, made Afghanistan a priority issue of his campaign platform. He has since appointed an experienced top diplomat, Richard Holbrook, as his special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama plans to send some of the troops withdrawn from Iraq to Afghanistan.

There are presently two operations in Afghanistan. One is the U.S.-led OEF, or Operation Enduring Freedom. The other is the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, originally established under a 2001 UN mandate, but taken over by NATO in 2003. The international presence, after an initial period of success and hope, is today experiencing problems in Afghanistan. This is why the new U.S. president is urgently asking his NATO allies to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

The Afghan issue was probably the reason that prompted the recent Obama call to President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan. He must have asked Turkey to send more troops in addition to the about 800 it already has within ISAF. For understandable reasons, Turkey declined until now. Indeed, in comparative terms, Turkey had done a lot more in Afghanistan than most of its NATO allies. I had supported this position Ğ until recently.

However, the situation is qualitatively different now. The conditions in Afghanistan require urgent action. More troops alone will certainly not be enough to address the ills of Afghanistan. For that, a multi-layered, multi-dimensional approach is needed. Yet without security, there would be little chance to tackle the other challenges of Afghanistan. That is why NATO’s success is vital. Moreover, its failure there could have dire consequences for its future.

As a new president who emphasizes multilateralism and international cooperation, Obama deserves a positive response from friends and allies in the mutual bid to bring security, stability and development to Afghanistan. Concerted action in this first test case would be a good precedent for Obama for similar collaboration on other issues.

As far as Turkey is concerned, there is a more compelling reason why it should say "yes" to additional troop contributions this time around. Turkey has been drifting away from both the EU and NATO the last several years. Turkey’s stand toward the EU and NATO, as properly identified by some experts, are the benchmarks of its Western orientation. Turkey is always a security-conscious power and needs NATO to sustain its over-all security profile. The "yes" should be qualified, barring combat duties for Turkish soldiers, given the special nature of the relationship between Turkey and Afghanistan. The "yes" should also be conditional on troop commitments by other allies. However, a Turkish lead in "more troops for Afghanistan" may not only encourage other allies to do the same, but create an opportunity for the Alliance to rejuvenate itself. Turkey could thus play a key role in helping the NATO alliance pull together at a challenging time. More importantly, it would help Afghanistan’s chances of achieving some degree of stability and security, while preventing a slide back to the Taliban.

In refurbishing their bilateral relationship, Turkey and the United States should also work closely together in developing a new strategy for Afghanistan. Finally, Ankara should again appoint an experienced diplomat to coordinate Turkey’s efforts on Afghanistan to energize its cooperation with the United States and the EU in particular. For Turkey, the issue is no less important than Iraq.