Last Updated: Thu Jul 21, 2011 11:48 am (KSA) 08:48 am (GMT)

Lale Kemal: David Petraeus comes to Turkey. Why?

Lale Kemal

Soon after handing over command of the Afghan war to US General John Allen on Monday, US General David Petraeus visited Turkey, which came as a surprise to the public but not to Turkish officials. General Petraeus will take up the post of chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in September.

Both Turkish and US officials told the media that he came to thank Turkish officials for Ankara’s contribution to international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, for which NATO member Turkey has already served three times as commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

General Petraeus had talks with Chief of General Staff General Işık Koşaner as well as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu before leaving for Berlin. Though he was reported to be visiting Turkey in his capacity as retiring NATO commander of Afghanistan, he was expected to meet with his future counterpart, Hakan Fidan, undersecretary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), but he did not. MİT officials told me that there had been no request on the part of General Petraeus to meet Mr. Fidan during the visit, since he has not yet officially assumed his post as the new CIA chief.

But if I were MİT, I would have had set up a meeting with General Petraeus to get acquainted with him, since the CIA and MİT are expected to intensify their dialogue in the face of many issues that both allies have a mutual interest in. These include the ongoing instability around Turkey due to the Arab Spring, including neighboring Syria; international terrorism, for which Turkey has long been a transit route; and Washington’s ongoing support to Ankara through supplying real-time intelligence critical in pinpointing the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in northern Iraq.

US officials stress that Turkey is a key country and player for the US in terms of missile defense and international terrorist activities, while Ankara is also helping Washington cope with the Arab Spring. This is despite the fact that the two allies do not see eye to eye on issues such as Iran and Israel.

Therefore, a potential sticking point regarding relations with the US could develop over whether radar components of NATO’s missile defense system are deployed on Turkish soil. NATO agreed in November 2010 not to specify Iran as a threat in its new Strategic Concept after Turkey insisted that no specific allusion be made to its neighbor or any other potential enemy.

“If Turkey agrees to cooperate with NATO on missile defense, then it has to stop relations with Iran,” said one Western source.

But Mr. Davutoğlu said in December 2010 that a missile defense system could assist in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats in the region.

There are also differing perspectives between the two allies on the topic of terrorism.

Responding to questions on General Petraeus ‘ talks on Tuesday, Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador in Ankara, said he and Turkish officials also had discussions about General Petraeus ‘ new post at the CIA and “our joint struggle against terror.”

Despite Turkish complaints, however, Washington stresses that it has been doing everything it can to help Turkey in its fight against the PKK, indicating the costly supply of actionable intelligence.

Turkey, in the meantime, has become intensively involved in a debate over allegations of ongoing military negligence in the fight against terrorism after a clash between the PKK and Turkish security forces on July 14, when 13 Turkish soldiers and seven PKK militants died.

This is to say that instead of continuously seeking US support in its fight against terrorism, Ankara should increasingly focus on minimizing its terror problem so that it can expend more energy on the democratic opening process it launched in 2009 to find a political solution to the decades-old Kurdish question.

While recalling that the US has been doing its best to help Turkey in the fight against its domestic terror problem, Washington tells Ankara that it has to focus on international terrorists, mainly al-Qaeda, that pose a threat to US interests elsewhere in the world.

Despite the divergence of opinion on various foreign policy issues, Turkey and the US have many issues of common interest that require close cooperation. That is why General Petraeus visited Ankara soon after the ceremony in which he handed over the NATO command in Afghanistan.

Published in Turkey’s Today Zaman on July 21, 2011

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