The Turkish foreign minister has confirmed that preparations are underway for opening an office in Turkey for the Afghan Taliban. During a recent visit to Turkey, the president of Pakistan, together with his Turkish counterpart, made a commitment to support political initiatives to end the war in Afghanistan. Ankara has been calling for talks with the Taliban, and having strong ties with both Afghanistan and Pakistan is seen as a key element in facilitating talks.
Turkey says it is willing to host a political office for Taliban militants from Afghanistan in order to promote talks to end the war there. An unnamed Afghan official is quoted as saying that planning for the office is already in progress.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul voiced support for initiatives to stabilize conflict-torn Afghanistan at a joint press conference Wednesday with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Gul said these initiatives include efforts to improve dialogue with the Taliban.
"We are interested in the Afghanistan issue in a very wide framework," said President Gul. "We will always take part in any activity that contributes to peace and aims for a permanent peace process. We are involved there not only in the war, but to help the Afghan people normalize life there."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday confirmed that he held talks last month with Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who heads a peace council set up by the Afghan government to work toward a political solution.
Turkey has traditional strong ties with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and has used those contacts successfully to mitigate Afghan-Pakistani tensions. Turkey also has several hundred soldiers stationed with the NATO-led ISAF forces in Afghanistan. However, according to Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, their strictly non-combat role means all sides still view Turkey as neutral.
"The Turks are a legitimate force in Kabul and may be contributing to at least the relative stability in that part of the country,"said Ozel. "Look, if you do have in Kabul a situation where other countries soldiers' are wearing Turkish uniforms because it's lot safer in the streets, that tells you something about the kind of prestige that the Turkish soldiers enjoy in Kabul."
Turkish officials say they are waiting for a formal request from the Afghan government to open an office. Last December, Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed the initiative in principle at a summit with his Turkish and Pakistani counterparts in Istanbul.
"It has been discussed with me previously by gentlemen, dignitaries close to the Taliban movement," said President Karzai. "The idea of Turkey serving as [a] place where gatherings take place, where a representation can be established in order to facilitate a reconciliation and integration, has been discussed. If Turkey can be kind to provide for such a venue, we the government of Afghanistan will be pleased and happy to see that facilitation take place by Turkey."
For now, the Taliban is sending out conflicting messages over whether it would be prepared to talk. But Ankara is reportedly using all its diplomatic influence to find a political solution to the conflict. That stance is supported by the Turkish former civilian head of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, Hikmet Cetin, who says talking with the Taliban is a necessity.
"Well, I do agree there should be some talk with them, because they are there," said Cetin. "We have to accept Taliban is an important element in Afghanistan and Pakistan and one way [or] another we have to deal with them. Especially with the non-criminal ones. And if the Afghan government itself is able to go further for reconciliation and [is] supported by military as well, the situation would get better as well, I think."
Observers say such sentiments are growing throughout the NATO-led forces and it is only a matter of time before some form of talks with the Taliban start. Turkey is working hard to be the venue for such talks.