Understanding Afghanistan and Central Asia, Keynote speech at the International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy, Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, Berlin, 28 May 2010 (Text and Power Point)


The International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy 2010, Berlin, 28 May 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I would like to express my great pleasure in addressing such a distinguished gathering. It is indeed a privilege for me to make this presentation. I would also like to express my appreciation of the organization of this Symposium. Institute for Cultural Diplomacy is making an important contribution to the debate on Afghanistan and Central Asia by means of this timely event.


I would like to congratulate the organizers of this meeting for the choice of the subject, because the most important aspect of the conflict in Afghanistan and in various countries of Central Asia is the cultural dimension. The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy is, by definition, one of the most appropriate institutions to deal with a subject that has a direct bearing on cultural differences.

 Besides, participating in a meeting concerning Afghanistan and Central Asia is particularly important for me, because this is a region with which Turkey has historic, ethnic and cultural ties.  Turkey cannot remain indifferent to the concerns and problems of the people living in this geographic region.

Afghanistan and Central Asia have to be studied under separate chapters, because, despite several common features, they are important for the West for different reasons. Their histories are different. Their strategic importance stems from different sources. Afghanistan is important because of the threat that it poses to the peace and stability of the West and of the international community at large, while Central Asian countries are important because many of them have huge hydro carbon reserves. Some of them may also pose a threat to the stability of the region but this feature is of a minor importance.

I – Afghanistan

The country that has to be studied more thoroughly is Afghanistan, because the Afghan issue is a more burning issue in the international relations than many others. First I would like to say a few words on the geographical location of Afghanistan to be followed by a few words on the historical background of the country. Then I will turn to Central Asia.

A. Geography

Afghanistan is located in a geo-strategically important place. It is located in the centre of the Eurasian landmass; in other words, the heart of the Old World. It is close to the Silk Road and the Spice Road that played a very important role in the exchange of cultures for several centuries.

The topography is mountainous and rocky, which makes it difficult for the international forces to fight the terrorists and easy for the terrorists to fight the foreign forces that are not used to such an environment.

            B. History

There can be very few other regions of the world, which has attracted the attention of so many great powers leading to attempts to its invasion by these powers, yet remains unattainable and uncontrollable.

Many major powers have been involved or have tried to get involved in this region. To name just a few, Alexander the Great managed to go there, but could not stay. The Chinese civilization felt obliged to build the Great Wall to put an obstacle between the Central Asia and themselves, for their security. The Turks and the Mongolians forced the region without being able to settle there. The British and the Russians tried their luck without much success. In the heyday of the British Empire, it remained as the wild North West frontier, not another colony. The Soviet Union was the most recent global power ultimately realizing the futility of such attempts. Now the United States acting together with part of the international community is trying its luck. It remains to be seen what will be the outcome of this latest attempt.

Needless to say, this tumultuous historical past has led to multilateral and multidimensional conflicts and confrontations. In some cases, even if the regional States were not a party of the conflict, the region became the battleground for foreign powers, inevitably causing difficulties and complications for the regional States.

In the 19th Century the rivalries of the great powers of the period was called “the Great Game”. The current situation in the region clearly demonstrates that this game is not over yet. Moreover, it continues to lure new players.

Why do we hold this conference entitled “Understanding Afghanistan and Central Asia”, in the context of cultural diplomacy? This initial question can be another reference point for us. We are here because most of the countries where our participants come from are involved in reconstruction of Afghanistan in varying degrees. Some of us are from countries participating in the ISAF.

The main reason underlying our involvement is associated with the risks of instability in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Other regions and countries in their turn may face threats and danger because of instability in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Nevertheless, the restriction of our interest within the limits of risk prevention in military terms would be an oversimplification of the issue. If Afghanistan’s internal problems are solved and sustainable security and stability is established in the region, this will not only prevent terrorism and other elements of instability, but will also contribute greatly to the integration of the region with the world.

C. The Present Day Afghanistan

After it has become clear that the planners and the perpetrators of 9/11 are nestled in Afghanistan, this country took a new place in the agenda of the international community. So far the international community tried, with limited success, several methods to dry the sources of terror in Afghanistan.

The state of affairs in Afghanistan may be summarized under the following headlines:

  1. Internal Difficulties in Afghanistan

The government in Afghanistan has difficulties in controlling the country from the centre. Afghan society which is traditionally divided through ethnic and tribal lines renders the task of the government to accommodate all these groups more difficult. Decades of conflict during which these groups participated in armed rebellion or fighting against government or foreign powers, have further alienated them from central authority and the foreign parties supporting it.

In fact, as result of geography, ethnic composition and political culture of the country, attempts to establish a strong central authority have failed in the past. This experience of the past indicates that it will be difficult stabilize the country without addressing the demands and expectations of as many segments of the Afghan society as possible, except those resorting to violence and terrorism. And the preservation of a viable structure depends on its legitimacy in the eyes of all groups constituting the Afghan society rather than in the eyes of the outside forces.

2. Economic difficulties

As another result of these decades of conflict, the economy of the country is totally devastated. Even the supply of the basic needs depends on international community. Moreover, because of the destruction caused by the conflicts, the infrastructure is not sufficient for basic-sustainable economic activity. Immense investments are required to re-establish the damaged infrastructure.

                        3. Social Problems Created by the Conflict

Again as a result of the continuing periods of conflict and fighting, young generations have not lived in a period of peace for a long time. Therefore, the social fabric of the Afghan society is also badly damaged and unfortunately a culture of civil war has gained ground. The rehabilitation is a daunting task. Social structures other than family and tribal-ethnic ties are very week indeed. Initiatives failing to take note of this reality of existing social structures are not likely to succeed.

Assistance and rehabilitation programs which were effective in other societies may not be necessarily suitable for Afghanistan. Aid and benefits of foreign assistance should be distributed evenly and creation of new social divisions and privileged groups should be avoided.

Present problems are further exacerbated by the massive armament in the country. Although the arms in the possession of people are small and light arms, they constitute a serious impediment to the establishment of public order in the country. I should also draw attention to the issue of landmines, as another predicament adversely affecting daily life.

                        4. Opium Production

For a significant part of the population opium production and other illegal activities such as smuggling remain as a source of income, because of the absence of other means of production and public order. Simply banning illegal activities cannot work, if we fail to introduce and encourage alternatives.

There is an anomaly in Afghanistan in the evolution of the drug trafficking or in the production of cannabis. It is interesting to note that there was a considerable decrease in the production of cannabis when Taliban was more in control of the situation in Afghanistan. This phenomenon has to be studied properly. We have to make more efforts to try to understand why Taliban was checking the production of drugs more successfully than the present Afghan administration that has the full backing of the international community.

No one can be optimistic under such circumstances, only extremist militant groups take advantage of this gloomy setting. These extremist elements such as terrorist organizations use Afghanistan as a convenient shelter to establish their bases, to train their militants and recruit new members. Often this last point is perceived as the main issue regarding Afghanistan and solutions are sought to address this issue. Actually, it is just the end result of a number of basic problems of Afghanistan. Without identifying and addressing the basic problems, the consequences cannot be appropriately dealt with.

This is merely a plain list of the problems of Afghanistan; each item could constitute the subject of a separate conference. Nevertheless, everyone can agree on the fact that the situation in Afghanistan is very difficult, though of course not hopeless.

5. Use of soft power

I do not know whether a survey is carried out on the potential effects of using soft power in Afghanistan as compared to using hard power. Such a survey may reveal whether the present way of doing things in Afghanistan is the right one.

The financial resources allocated to various military missions in Afghanistan amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. We may wish to take a break and look back to the performance that the international community has been able to achieve so far. For such a survey to be meaningful for our purpose, the figures should not be confined to the budget of the military missions alone. It has to include all aspects of the cost of conflict. I know that the cost of human suffering is not quantifiable. However such suffering should not be kept out of sight either.

Soft power is already being used at present in Afghanistan. However when we make an overall comparison that includes the tax payers’ money both for soft power and hard power, we may wonder whether we have established a reasonable balance between the two.  The cost of a few sorties of combat aircraft must be equal to the cost of the construction of a school or of a small hospital. The construction of schools, hospitals and roads is more likely to gain the heart of the Afghan people and lure them to cooperate with the international community.

The complicated problems of Afghanistan should be assessed within a broader perspective, with political, economic, social and cultural dimensions as well, not only in terms of security and military operations. So far, the ISAF has achieved a certain degree of progress and success, because of the broad perspective of its approach to the question. Continuation of this success depends on the continuation of the respect for the realities of the country and the will of its people.

I am not underestimating the fundamental issue of security. Maintaining security and public order is the primary question and it is the basic prerequisite to be delivered. Nevertheless, security cannot be sustainable without simultaneous progress in other areas.

5. Minimizing the collateral damage of bombings

The use of hard power contributes also to the alienation of the civilian population because of the huge collateral damage caused by various bombings. We have to add to this the frustration and anger of the people who lose their loved ones. Let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lose their father, their mother or those who supported them to stay alive. After such losses they become easy prey for recruitment by the terrorists.

The collateral damage destroys the life of countless innocent people who have done nothing wrong in their life that could damage our interests. Yet they are victims. It will not be fair to consider these collateral damages as natural disaster or as an act of God. They are entirely man-made and they are the result of military missions planned and carried out by our soldiers. The fact that the damage caused to the innocent civilians was not intentional will not relieve its perpetrators from the moral responsibility that it entails.

6. Future of Afghanistan

The reason of my hope and partial optimism is my confidence in the determination of the Afghan people and the strong interest of the international community to assist them. Even in the most difficult times, despite all their differences and their different ethnic backgrounds, the Afghan people managed to retain their unity. This was also recognized by the other countries and therefore territorial integrity of Afghanistan has been preserved.

Afghanistan deserves to live in peace and be a member of international community, fully integrated with the global economy. Those who will achieve this are only the people of Afghanistan themselves.  The international community has to act as a partner of the Afghan people rather than acting as a donor in their struggle to re-establish and restructure their country.

7. Historic background of Turkey’s cooperation with Afghanistan

My country Turkey has a long history of cooperation with Afghanistan dating back to 1920s. A study carried out by the UNDP indicates that the very first technical assistance as it is defined by the UNDP was extended by Turkey to Afghanistan in 1928. This spirit of cooperation stemming from the long history of our cultural ties with the people of Afghanistan has been motivating Turkey to assist Afghanistan with whatever means are available. If there is a single thing we have learned, it is the openheartedness of the Afghan people for assistance and cooperation with good intentions and respect for their dignity.

7. Education

Here the issue of education deserves a special prominence. The success of programs aiming at restructuring and sustainable development of Afghanistan depends on education of its young generations. Only education can guarantee Afghanistan’s integration with the world.

The education of girls is by far the most important single social issue in Afghanistan. It is, at the same time, the most difficult to tackle, because it is perceived as a controversial issue within the country.

8. The impact of the Palestinian issue

I do not want to conclude this chapter without mentioning the link that many people in the Middle East establishes between the war in Afghanistan and another subject that, in our opinion, has nothing to do with the Afghan conflict, namely the Palestinian issue. It is not easy to explain how the Palestinian issue has a bearing on the situation in Afghanistan. However, whether we like it or not, many people who fight against the ISAF in Afghanistan claim that these two fights are linked to each other one way or the other. There may not be a rational explanation for such a linkage. However Al Qaeda fundamentalists who fight in Afghanistan are on the record to point out the Palestinian question is the core issue that constitutes the source too many other issues in the Middle East. I will not draw from this perception the conclusion that if the Palestinian question is not solved Afghanistan cannot be stabilized. Neither do I draw the conclusion that if the Palestinian question is solved, Afghanistan will automatically become a stable country. Such a conclusion will of course be misleading. However if there are tangible progress in the solution of the Palestinian problem, improvement could be expected in the situation in Afghanistan as well.

This concludes what I am going to say about Afghanistan.

II – Central Asia

I now turn to Central Asia. The definition of Central Asia may vary from one person to another. However for the purpose of this conference we may assume that Central Asia consists of the following countries: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, though the Kazakhs do not like to be included within the framework of the Central Asian countries.

The Silk Road and Spice Road that linked China overland to Europe crossed central Asia. The control of this Road was essential for the world trade.

Today, the region’s oil and natural gas resources and their supply to the world markets have a similar significance. In the past, the robbery had been a hazard for the regional stability, now we have the extremist groups sheltering in the uncontrolled areas and they constitute a great risk for the world. During the soviet era the region enjoyed security, peace and stability. The security is still widely enjoyed in all of the Central Asian countries; however stability is disturbed from time to time in some of them.

Natural resources of Central Asia

Their natural resources are the basic source of income for the landlocked countries of the region. Since transportation of oil and natural gas requires infrastructures involving many countries and general regional stability, the economic development of the region and its integration with the global economy depend on this stability.

The oil and natural gas resources of Central Asia constitute a key factor to maintain stability in world economy given the situation in the Middle East and the quantitative limits of Middles Eastern resources in the long run. Therefore, contributing to the stability and security in Central Asia is also a global responsibility.

Role of the regional countries and contributions of non-regional actors

In this framework, I would like to refer briefly to   the   position of the regional countries as regards the stability of the region. Firstly, it is the task and responsibility of the regional actors to maintain regional stability. Non-regional actors could contribute to this process to the extent they support the schemes of the regional countries.

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