Experts warn of risks for Turkey in mediating with Taliban

The recent push by some international actors in Afghanistan for Turkey to help mediate a possible reconciliation process with the Taliban has prompted experts to warn about the risks of undertaking such a mission.

“Unfortunately Turkey is being encouraged by Western powers to play a role in the reconciliation process,” said Sinan Oğan, director of the Ankara-based Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, or TÜRKSAM. He is among those who believe assuming such a responsibility would not be to Turkey’s benefit.

Concerns about Turkish mediation have centered around the willingness of the Taliban to engage in reconciliation, as well as the domestic consequences, which could include criticism from secular circles and pressure on Turkey to start dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan People’s Party, or PKK.

“Once you open the door to dialogue with a terrorist organization, you might have to face the repercussions. Using the same rationale, what would Turkey say if the PKK decided to open an office in a third country and asked to use a mediator to reconcile with Turkey,” Oğan said, noting that the Taliban remains the foe of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said in December that he would welcome a Taliban office opening in Turkey, adding that such a development could help peace talks in his war-torn country. He made the statement at a press conference following a trilateral meeting in Istanbul with the presidents of Turkey and Pakistan.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül (R) and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai are seen during a news conference after a Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan summit in Istanbul.

The essential dilemma in any reconciliation process with the Taliban lies in identifying who to reconcile with, as multiple factions claim to represent the group, according to Ahat Andican, an expert on Afghanistan. “The core of the Taliban has never confirmed the reconciliation process,” said the former minister, whose responsibilities included Turks and Turkic communities outside of Turkey.

Karzai has been trying for many months to persuade Taliban leaders to join his government; his efforts intensified after U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would begin scaling back U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in July 2011.

The head of Afghanistan’s new peace council said in October that contacts with members of the Taliban had been made through mediators. “We are taking our first steps,” said Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president. The insurgent group has so far denied such meetings have taken place.

“Karzai’s claims to having talks with the Taliban have never been confirmed by [them]. He is looking for legitimacy; that’s why he has made the proposal to have the Taliban open an office in Turkey. He is trying to send a message to the Taliban by saying, ‘I’ll let you have these kinds of means if you reconcile with me,’” Andican told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

Karzai said in Istanbul that figures close to the Taliban had previously shared the idea with him. “The idea was that Turkey would serve as a place where gatherings can take place, where representation [of the Taliban] could be established in order to facilitate reconstruction and reintegration,” the Afghan president said.

Afghan expert Andican is not convinced that the core groups in Taliban are willing to reconcile. “The Taliban is gaining ground in the country, why would it sit down and talk?” he asked. “It wants to gain time. It is waiting for the Western forces to leave the country.”

A foreign observer familiar with the region said Turkey is well placed to play a role in the mediation process since it has maintained its neutrality with all players in the country. While Turkey is actively taking part in NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan, it does so on condition of not fighting the insurgent groups in the country’s south.

Other observers say Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, might have special links to influential groups in Afghanistan. An often-cited photo shows a young Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s current prime minister, kneeling next to Gulbuttin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hızb-e Islami, another important group that could play a role in the reconciliation process. Also supporting this belief is the fact that the son of Rabbani, the head of the peace council, was recently appointed ambassador to Turkey.

The peace council was set up in September by the Afghan government, formalizing efforts already under way to reconcile with top Taliban leaders. Turkey’s warm relations with Pakistan, another influential player in Afghan matters also, reinforce the image of Ankara as a potential mediator.

Afghan expert Andican believes, however, that Turkey lacks any influence in the country’s complex setting. “You can’t solve the problem merely by getting Afghans and Pakistanis in trilateral meetings,” said Andican, arguing that a bloody civil war will break out in Afghanistan after Western military powers leave the country.

“The war in Afghanistan cannot have winners. The Taliban cannot beat the coalition forces and the coalition forces cannot overcome the Taliban. There are attempts to find a third way. This could include incorporating moderate forces in the Taliban in the government,” said TÜRKSAM director Oğan, adding that Turkey should not be part of that process. “If there is a need to talk to the Taliban, let Western forces do that. It is primarily their problem,” he said.

Turkey has not yet made an official statement about a possible role in any reconciliation process. A Turkish official told the Daily News, however, that several international actors, including the United Nations, want to see Turkey involved in the process, as it has been in mediation between Syria and Israel, or Iran and Western powers.

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News

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