For Sayed Nooruddin Hashimi, one of 20 Afghan foreign ministry officials currently receiving diplomatic training in the Turkish capital, Ankara's years of humanitarian assistance are reflective of the longstanding spirit of friendship that has existed between the two countries.
"Turkey is Afghanistan's closest neighbour without common borders," the 33-year-old from Kabul told IRIN - an interesting perception shared by many of the country's more than 20 million inhabitants.
"This remark explains a great deal," former Turkish government official for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, Ambassador Aydemir Erman told IRIN in Ankara. "Whenever you have common borders you have problems and Turkey and Afghanistan are too far away from each other to harbour any specific agendas on one another," he maintained.
This is one reason why Turkey has been consistently welcome in Afghanistan, allowing it to emerge as a potential key player in the country's future reconstruction, both economically and politically.
While 12 percent of Afghanistan's population is ethnic Turkic, apart from common religion, it is historic ties that have drawn the two nations close together. In the 1920's during the time of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic and Afghan King Amanullah, relations grew immensely. Like Ataturk, Amanullah was reform minded and interested in following the path of secular Turkey.
Afghanistan was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognise Ataturk's government. Education and cultural exchange programmes were established, Turkish military officers assisted in training the Afghan army and Turkish schools were established inside the country. Turkey enjoyed a high profile in Afghanistan right up until the 1960's.
Turkey's assistance to Afghanistan today goes far beyond educational exchange programmes - something it has been doing for years. Despite the geographic distance, Ankara has been an active, but quiet player in the Central Asian country for years. Presently Turkey is looking to expand its assistance to the country and is well placed to do it. "This is not a new process for us. Turkey has been involved in humanitarian activities in Afghanistan for many years - regardless of who ruled the country," Erman explained.
While Turkish assistance has been small compared to other countries - given its own financial difficulties - it has been effective and well targeted. Focusing on health, followed by education and social development, Turkey would like to increase its activities. "We want to help provide security inside the country and later to contribute to the development of Afghanistan - in as many fields as possible," Erman said.
"Mainly our contributions are in the area of health - but now we are expanding," Erman explained. Currently under construction is a special aid centre within the the Turkish embassy compound in Kabul to accommodate up to 50 more humanitarian workers. At the end of June, Turkey plans to send experts in health, training and education to the country. An additional health clinic is being planned for the northern city of Kunduz, as well as possibly in the southern city of Kandahar in the future - pending security in the area.
Renewing an earlier tradition, Ankara also plans to send teachers and professors from Turkish universities to train their Afghan counterparts in the country. Additionally, Turkey has also expressed interest in training the interim government's police force. "If and when we start training Afghan police, we will start in Afghanistan, but perhaps in the future in Turkey as well," current Afghan coordinator, Ambassador Ahmet Rifat Okcun told IRIN.
Regarding reconstruction, a team of Turkish experts from the Greater Anatolian Project (GAP), the largest water and irrigation project of its kind in the world, comprised of 17 dams in southeastern Turkey, recently returned from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad after a preliminary examination of possible projects there. The team also evaluated social development projects and job creation schemes that could be implemented, particularly in the agriculture sector.
Commenting on the GAP project, Vefik Fenmen, Foreign Ministry education expert told IRIN: "GAP is not only an irrigation project, but a social development project working in the areas of industry and job creation." Two areas of critical importance in Afghanistan today.
Construction of the country's shattered infrastructure is another area Turkey could play an important role. According to Okcun, earlier this month, a group of Turkish contractors traveled to Afghanistan to see first hand what type of work was needed after over two decades of war and maintained they are well placed to meet the challenge. "In the construction field, our companies are in a good position to win if there is going to be international bidding," he said.
Turkish contractors were instrumental in building projects throughout the newly independent Central Asian states following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's - with a cumulative value of over US $25 billion. "Turkish companies are well positioned in nearby countries and ready to move in," he said. "One day there will be international biddings and Turkish companies will be there," Okcun maintained.
But of equal importance is the positive attitude of the Afghan people - towards Turkey. Often seen as a window on the West, in addition to being a member of NATO, secular, but Muslim Turkey, has never been seen as a threat by Afghans unlike other nations both near and far. "We don't use the Muslim card ourselves, but the Afghans do," Okcun explained. This makes Turks more welcome than most countries at the moment, he added.
This is precisely why Britain and the US are so eager for Turkey to take command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), mandated by the UN security council until June this year to maintain security in Kabul. While ready to take up the role, negotiations for Turkey to assume command are continuing after last week's meeting with US and British officials in Ankara.
Turkey wants written assurances on whether ISAF's mandate will be extended beyond Kabul and how the support and logistics for the operation will work. Already Ankara has contributed 260 soldiers to the 5,000-strong peace force. Initially, some US $60 million worth of financial assistance is being requested by Turkey to assume the difficult task.
While Turkey watches developments in Afghanistan with cautious optimism, Western observers wonder what kind of role model, secular Muslim Turkey will play in the future of Afghanistan. Erman said when you look at the history of Afghanistan, it is inappropriate to set a model for the country. "Every country has its own model. Whatever Afghan people chose as their model we shall respect and support it - we are not imposing anything," he explained.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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