A Turkish military delegation, led by Maj-Gen Akin Zorlu, arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Thursday as a first step towards Turkey assuming command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan.
Zorlu's visit comes less than a week after Turkey's National Security Council accepted in principle that the country would lead the 4,800-strong international force.
"This is a three-day mission to evaluate first hand the structure of ISAF and the technical needs on the ground," an ISAF spokesman, Neil Peckham, told IRIN from Kabul. "All indicators suggest they [the Turks] are ready and willing to take on this role," he said.
Reports indicate that Zorlu, heading the 42-member delegation, is regarded as the leading contender for the command of the UN-sanctioned force, mandated to provide security in Kabul and the surrounding areas as the interim Afghan authority establishes itself. He and a group of Turkish officers are coordinating with the British team currently leading the force to establish the requirements of the operation.
Turkey, the only Muslim nation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) - an alliance of 19 nations committed to each other's defence - also enjoys strong historical ties with Afghanistan, putting it in a strong position to assume the leadership of ISAF.
On 31 March, after months of negotiations with US and British officials, Turkey's National Security Council gave its approval for the assumption of the ISAF command, provided that all Turkey's requirements were met in full. These included ensuring that funding was provided to meet the cost of commanding the force, and that there would be no expansion of ISAF from its present operational zone: a 32 km radius around Kabul.
Turkish government spokesman Yilmaz Karakoyunlu said earlier this week that a US $228 million aid package promised by the Bush administration would meet Turkey's needs, pending approval by the US Congress, the Associated Press agency (AP) reported on Wednesday. Washington also expressed support for Ankara's demand that ISAF's mandate should not be extended beyond the 32 km radius, the report added.
Ankara was still holding discussions with its ISAF allies on what kind of communications infrastructure they would leave behind and how Turkey might transport its troops, according to AP. Turkey maintains that the C-130 transport planes it has are inadequate for the purpose, and that new planes are therefore needed.
Turkey currently has 261 troops in Afghanistan, but is expected to boost its forces by 1,000 before taking over ISAF by May.
Asked to confirm this, Peckham said he hoped Turkey would provide the 600-strong battle group currently being provided by Britain, but noted that no decision to that effect had been made.
Commenting on the ability of the Turkish forces to perform the task, Peckham said the Turkish army was held in high regard by its NATO and international allies.
"I think this visit will clarify what is involved in this mission, but I have no doubt they can fulfill this role," he added.
Meanwhile, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, travelled to Turkey on Thursday, his first official visit to the country since he took office in December.
Karzai is expected to meet President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem during his two-day visit, according to Turkey's official Anatolian News Agency.
Accompanying him on the visit were Afghan Foreign Minister Abdollah Abdollah, Public Health Minister Sohaila Sediq, Higher Education Minister Mohammad Sharif Fayz and Information and Culture Minister Said Rahin Makhdum, the agency said.
In addition to Turkey's command of ISAF and the establishment of an Afghan army, other areas of discussion were to include Turkey's contribution to reconstruction, as well as educational and humanitarian efforts being made in Afghanistan.
Karzai was also expected to meet 20 Afghan diplomats undergoing training in the Turkish capital, Ankara, the report added.
Asked when he expected Turkey to assume command of ISAF, Peckham said no formal date had been announced, but he hoped Zorlu's visit - coinciding with Karzai's visit to Turkey - would result in a formal statement.