Turkey, the dependable ally | Talat Masood

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The visit of President Erdogen to Pakistan comes at a time when leaders of the two countries are facing serious challenges at home and abroad. In these circumstances the visit of a staunch ally is always reassuring and welcome.

Relations between Pakistan and Turkey could be the envy of many countries. Both countries have enjoyed excellent relations ever since the creation of Pakistan. Warmth and affection reserved for the people of Turkey goes back even before the creation of Pakistan. Muslims of undivided India had always looked up to Turkey with admiration and affection. The relationship has now much wider and deeper bonds as it has political, strategic, economic and emotional connotations.

On critical economic and political issues the two countries have generally taken identical positions and supported each other at the UN, OIC and in multilateral and regional forums. Interestingly, Turkey and Pakistan remained close both during military and democratic regimes. As a happy coincidence I was part of the official delegation to Turkey both with General Zia as well as with PM Benazir Bhutto. The extraordinary reception that the two leaders got only confirmed the view that Pakistan-Turkey relationship transcends personality and party barriers and has stood the test of time. It is indeed disconcerting to learn that the PTI has decided to boycott President Erdogan’s address to the joint session of parliament. Truly, it makes no sense and is in poor taste. PTI has every right to express its grievance against the Prime Minister if it feels that it has been wronged, but parliament is neither the forum nor this particular occasion. First staying away from parliament and then seeking a separate meeting with the Turkish President is placing him in an embarrassing situation. I hope wiser counsel will prevail.

Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan, first as prime minister from March 2003 to August 2014 and then as President has undergone a phenomenal transformation. According to international think tanks Turkey’s economy in the first five years of Mr Erdogan’s tenure as prime minister expanded on an average of nearly 7 per cent, but since 2007 the annual growth rate has slowed down to a modest 3.5 per cent. Clearly, Turkey made exceptional economic progress in the first ten years of Mr Erdogan’s rule than what it was able to achieve in decades. It is now the world’s 18th largest economy. Some of its industry is world class and a leading producer of television sets and commercial trucks. Its construction industry meets global standards and Turkish firms have been extensively involved in building roads and highways in Pakistan. Turkey is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world. Regrettably, recent terrorist attacks and strained relations with Russia have adversely affected tourism. Heavy influx of Syrian refugees and Turkey’s direct involvement in the war in Syria and Iraq have further burdened its economy and introduced fresh challenges for the regime. World Bank and multilateral agencies are, however, advising Turkey to undertake structural reforms to accelerate economic growth and to place it on a sound footing.

Turkey is also a key member of the NATO and its armed forces are the second largest only next to US. There is close cooperation between Pakistan and Turkish armed forces. Visits of military delegations and participation in joint exercises are a common feature of this relationship. Efforts have also been made to cooperate in the area of defence production. Whereas both countries have repeatedly expressed the desire to enhance mutual cooperation but as the two militaries have weapons and equipment from different sources cooperation remains limited. Nonetheless, wherever there is compatibility the two militaries have tried to cooperate. Turkey’s recent gift of T-37 trainer aircraft to Pakistan was indeed an excellent demonstration of the closeness between the two militaries and governments.

Turkey has tilted toward its Islamic roots under Erdogan and moved away from the traditional secular and elitist character of the past regimes and that of its armed forces. The recent failed coup attempt by the armed forces has split the country ideologically and it would take time to heal the wounds. This divide is across the entire social and political milieu. President Erdogan has a very strong and committed following especially in rural areas and among the middle and low-income groups. They stood firmly with the President during the revolt that had the backing of certain elements within the armed forces. Their support played a significant role in foiling the coup.

But the tough policies of President Erdogan have created deep fissures in the Turkish society that need to be healed if Turkey has to actualise its full potential. Turkey in order to protect itself from the fallout of the ravaging war on its borders has taken strong positions and its armed forces are deeply involved in fighting IS in Syria and Iraq. At the same time Turkish armed forces have been engaged in a civil war with the Kurds. Erdogan’s harsh policies toward his opponents have been a subject of serious criticism by the Western countries, especially the US and Germany. It is ironic that when Erdogan came into power his foreign minister very proudly announced that we will pursue a policy of staying away from conflicts and focus on our economy. Unfortunately, Turkey has not been able to live up to this and is broadly engaged militarily on several fronts in the Middle East. Whereas President Erdogan is justified in taking a hard position on militant organisations and their backers but has used the same tools for suppressing his political opponents giving rise to strong resentment against him domestically. Many newspaper owners, editors and journalists are behind bars for criticising government’s policies. The strong position and severe action against opponents has resulted in Turkey’s relations with European and African countries to suffer. We hope that Turkey to whom the Muslim world looks with admiration will soon overcome its internal and external problems and be able to realise the full potential of its people.