With the recent attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, it’s easy to overlook the first front in the war on terrorism: Afghanistan. It is worth watching. Over the last several months the country has slipped further into violence and lawlessness, and has seen the resurgence of Taliban attacks, record opium poppy harvests, and a new round of direct attacks on international and Afghan aid workers. According to a report from the United Nations Security Council this month, the lack of security and “the rule of the gun” are threatening a fragile reconstruction process aimed at building a new society from the rubble of Taliban rule. The stakes couldn’t be much higher. As outgoing NATO Secretary-General George Robertson warned last week, “If we fail, we will find Afghanistan on all of our doorsteps.”
Getting the reconstruction of Afghanistan back on track will require that security is expanded beyond the capital, Kabul, both to stem terrorist activity and to enable the spread of President Hamid Karzai’s authority in the countryside. Following a long overdue U.S. reversal in position, the U.N. Security Council recently broadened the mandate for NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), thus allowing security forces to move into these crucial areas. While this decision may set the stage for progress, however, NATO member states, including the United States, have as yet failed to provide the resources necessary to translate their words into action. ISAF expansion is not simply a matter of redistributing NATO forces from Kabul. It requires significantly more troops than those currently stationed in the country.
So far, those troops are nowhere to be found – because NATO members have been either overstretched or unwilling to send them – and the failure is costing precious lives and opportunity in this critical war zone. Fifteen thousand NATO and coalition forces make up the backbone of the international presence in Afghanistan – a figure 10 times smaller than the number of troops in Iraq. As experts testified in recent congressional hearings, this number is simply not enough to provide necessary security in the capital and the surrounding regions. In fact, Defense and Foreign ministers from NATO members are meeting in Brussels this week to review the alliance’s ongoing role in the war on terrorism, including the mission in Afghanstan.
But the United States and the international community need not look further for a solution than to Turkey, an ally still reeling from staggering terrorist attacks on its own soil. The tragic bombings in Istanbul – whose perpetrators were reportedly trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan – indicate the global war on terrorism has come knocking at Turkey’s door. Now more than ever, it makes sense to ask the Turks to redirect their offer of up to 10,000 troops for Iraq to Afghanistan.
For Washington, this represents a valuable opportunity to mend fences with an important strategic ally wounded by the U.S. failure to secure the approval of the Iraqi Governing Council for its offer of help. For Turkey, it could represent an opportunity to take the offensive in the war on terrorism and fight for its security in a venue where its efforts would make a greater comparative difference than they might have in Iraq.
With its experience as the former ISAF lead nation in Afghanistan, Turkey has significant expertise to bring to the table. Turkey’s numbers and capabilities would allow existing NATO forces in Kabul to expand into surrounding regions and would alleviate the pressure on American troops currently on the ground. And as NATO’s only majority Muslim member, Turkey’s foray into another high-profile tour in Afghanistan would demonstrate the campaign against terrorism is not a war against Muslims.
When asked about this prospect last week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher dismissed the possibility, saying, “We’ll leave it to NATO to coordinate the requirements for the mission in Afghanistan.” His answer is shocking given the strategic importance of Afghanistan. Prior to going to war in Iraq, President Bush recognized the need “to help the new Afghan government provide the security that is the foundation for peace” and “be a friend to the Afghan people in all the challenges that lie ahead.” With a clear vital national interest at stake, the Administration’s failure to provide the leadership necessary to bridge the security gap is unacceptable. Spearheading the war on terrorism in this case requires more than passing the buck onto NATO; it means making the diplomatic effort necessary to meet a critical international security need.
Testifying before the House International Relations Committee two weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca stressed the greatest threat and most important U.S. interest in Afghanistan is the growing lack of security in the country. Afghanistan must not become a casualty of the Administration’s preoccupation with Iraq. In both countries, the Administration continues to struggle with ensuring hard-fought military victories are secured. Unlike in Iraq, in Afghanistan there is a strong international coalition backed by NATO to draw upon. While they may not meet all the security needs in Afghanistan, Turkish troops would provide a much-needed boost. Help is only a phone call away.
Mirna Galic and Michael Pan are national security analysts at the Center for American Progress.