Talking Turkey

Three guesses as to which Muslim country has a secular, democratically elected government; genuinely close relations with both the United States and Israel; and an advanced market economy. Actually, it probably won’t take you three guesses—and if I tell you that this country is a member of NATO, that will give it away altogether. It’s an easy riddle, because Turkey is unique. The foreign minister of the only fully fledged, fully paid-up Muslim member of the Euro-Atlantic alliance speaks confidently of his nation’s role in “Europe,” yet maintains easy contacts with much of the Islamic world as well. Many countries proudly describe themselves in tourist brochures as the “crossroads between East and West,” but Turkey really is—and I think we’re all about to remember it. 

We’re also going to remember that Turkey has a very old, very close, and very unusual relationship with Afghanistan. Until recently, the two shared their more relaxed version of Islam, as well as ancient ethnic links (some Turkic languages are spoken in Afghanistan). The Afghan government was the first to recognize the independent Republic of Turkey, along with its president, Kemal Ataturk, in 1923. Ataturk reciprocated by sending Turkish officers to help modernize the Afghan army, as well as Turkish doctors, who founded one of the first modern hospitals in Kabul. Afghans studied at Turkish military colleges right up until the Soviet occupation of their country, and Turkish humanitarian aid to Afghanistan continued until the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. Even after that the Turks hosted several meetings of Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders in Ankara—and have quietly kept doing so since Sept. 11.

Along with Britain and France, Turkey has now sent an elite company of soldiers to Afghanistan—and could end up playing a much larger role as well. At the moment, everybody involved in Afghanistan wants some form of international peacekeeping force to help fend off chaos in the country, but nobody can quite decide who should lead it. The United Nations doesn’t want to send U.N. soldiers—they aren’t prepared for such volatile situations—and the United States doesn’t want this war ending with what appears to be an American occupation. As a result, there is some loose, unofficial talk of a multinational force composed of Islamic soldiers, possibly to be led by Turkey. I spoke to a Turkish diplomat with experience in the region who told me that he has private doubts as to whether any force, of any kind, will be acceptable to the Afghans, who hate having foreign soldiers on their soil. Nevertheless, he was clear about what his government would say: “If the U.N. or the U.S. asks us to send a peacekeeping force, we won’t be reluctant to do that.”

But could Turkey play an even bigger role? Or rather, could Turkey actually be a role model for Afghanistan and others? From a distance, it seems strange that the Turkish model isn’t more widely admired. True, Turkey is far from perfect. In recent years, the country has been plagued by home-grown Kurdish terrorists, as well as home-grown Islamic fundamentalists. The government leans heavily on both, so much so that both the Council of Europe and Amnesty International lean on Turkey in return. Torture is practiced. People disappear, particularly east of Ankara. The European Union, on these and other grounds, has kept Turkey out.

On the other hand, NATO has kept Turkey well in. Foreign investors are thick on the ground. The economy goes through rocky periods but is in a different league from those of its neighbors, Russia included. I once took a ferry from Odessa to Istanbul; upon arrival, I felt as if I had returned to the West. Women don’t wear burqas in Turkey; they wear blue jeans. Alcohol is for sale. The country has even spawned an exportable pop star: Tarkan, whom the Washington Postcompared to Elvis, hasn’t yet made it in the United States, but he has topped pop charts in France. Turkey isn’t shy about exporting its form of secular Islam either and has made great diplomatic efforts in the post-Soviet world. Just this week, Turkey played a role in the latest series of talks between Russia and Chechnya, another conflict where it sees itself as a natural broker. If Turkey had more followers, Turkey would certainly be delighted to lead.

In fact, the absence of followers may say more about the Islamic world than it says about Turkey. To get to where it is today, Turkey went through a genuine social revolution, one that lasted several decades. Ataturk—backed by a loyal army, a strong police force, and the support of nationalist intellectuals—didn’t just make it possible for girls to go to school, he forced girls to go to school. He didn’t just encourage Westernization, he banned the fez, the traditional Turkish hat, altogether. Most important, Ataturk put secularism at the heart of the Turkish education system, where it has remained ever since.

To repeat Ataturk’s achievement in Afghanistan, the country would need a powerful and single-minded leader capable of throwing all the Taliban’s policies immediately into reverse. Not only is no such person available, it’s hard to imagine there will be many volunteers, there or anywhere else. When the shah of Iran tried to follow in Ataturk’s footsteps, the Iranians repaid him with the Islamic revolution. He narrowly escaped with his life.

Still, a distant, probably unattainable model is better than no model at all—and some moderate influence is better than none. Over the past 20 years, communism has failed in Afghanistan, warlordism has failed in Afghanistan, and radical Islam has failed in Afghanistan. It can’t hurt to let the Turks send in troops—and see where it leads.