AFP and the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman have confirmed earlier reports about a summit to be hosted by Ankara between Afghan and Pakistani presidents sometimes in early May this year.
Before anything else I am reminded of the White House dinner last year during which president Bush hosted the two leaders in a famously frigid atmosphere. Fresh from the sets of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room, where they had been mutually generous with criticisms and accusations of incapacity, the two leaders reportedly shook hands with their host before the dinner, but not with each other. (Unknown sources quoted a White House valet -who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the incident- noticing the two guests periodically kicking each other “in the shin” under the table.)
All in all, that dinner in Washington did little to bring a thaw in the relations between the two leaders, as evidenced most recently with this week’s remarks by President Musharraf on American TV. Asked how he felt about President Karzai’s critique of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, and his accusation that Mullah Omar was hiding out in Pakistan, Musharraf said that he is “very angry” with Karzai, and that Karzai’s continued insistence that Omar was in Pakistan is “absolute nonsense.” Surprisingly there has been no rhetorical tit-for-tat from the Afghan president so far, and there are subtle indications that at least some people in the government of Afghanistan are toning down their usually harsh and explicit criticism of Pakistan. Especially now that both leaders have agreed “in principal” with a meeting in Ankara, it is unlikely that the rhetorical altercation will worsen.
It is hard not to suspect Washington’s hand in arranging the Ankara talk. There are no reports to the effect, and I have heard nothing so far from any officials in the American government, but it is clear that aside from the largely symbolic place that the common religion of Islam holds in the relations between the three countries, the real common denominator for all three countries can be found in the three capital letters: U.S.A.
Both Ankara and Islamabad (incidentally also sister cities) are longtime US and NATO allies, and both played front and center roles during the Cold War against the Soviet Union: Izmir was the site of US Jupiter IRBM nuclear warheads that was used as a justification by the Soviets for deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba -triggering the Cuban Missile Crisis– and Pakistan was instrumental in channeling American money to the Mujahideen in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The US also continues to enthusiastically back Turkey’s membership into EU, an issue that probably tops Turkey’s list of foreign policy priorities and concerns.
Separately, Turkey and Pakistan have celebrated their common cultural links and economic as well as strategic interests in the form of such regional organizations as ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization), and according to his memoirs In the Line of Fire, the Pakistani president has spent part of his childhood growing up in Turkey, and is clearly inspired and enamored in his thinking by Turkey’s secular and modernizing leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For its part, while Turkey has not been as proactive as Pakistan during the civil war in Afghanistan, it is clear that it has not sat on the sidelines either. Turkey supported, and at times hosted, prominent Uzbek warlord and Northern Alliance commander Rashid Dostum during the civil war and later in the fight with the fundamentalist T. regime. More recently, Turkey has supported the US-led struggle in Afghanistan and has contributed troops to the security umbrella ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, and a Turkish general has previously led the outfit.
Now, these good offices are called upon to perform a difficult task of monumental consequences: thaw the little ice age that has suddenly descended between Kabul and Islamabad.
Regardless of how the summit turns out for Karzai and Musharraf, the host (Turkish Prime Minister Recep Teyeb Erdogan) could use some distraction from the recent public opposition to his candidacy for Turkey’s presidency.