TURKEY IN PAKISTAN: Erdogan’s footprint

Spearhead Analysis – 25.11.2016

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Erdogan PakistanIt was upon reading a book by H C Armstrong that Jinnah found in the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, his contemporary, a kindred spirit; Grey Wolf, as Ataturk was called, was to have a profound and everlasting influence on the nation’s founder. Jinnah’s daughter Dina would often lovingly call her father ‘Greywolf’, fittingly extoled by a wolf bust in Jinnah’s study in the flagstaff house where his last year as Governor General was spent. But it is not only this deep respect and regard Jinnah had for Ataturk that tied the two countries together; both leaders also shared attributes of ‘courage, tenacity, and a strong will’. Both nations were also essentially carved from a similar experience of loss of statehood and sovereignty in regions replacing the garb of colonialism with that of modern nationalism.

Fast forward to a post 9/11 world and it seems Turkey, like Pakistan, is in the throes of terrorism threatening to destroy not only life and property, but in effect aims to systematically obliterate a complete way of life. While Turkey’s recent coup and Pakistan’s first democratic transition of power has somewhat changed the political structures of both countries, they also stand at the precipice of deeper regional ties in the face of shifting tectonics of international order. Not only has it become imperative to forge bilateral trade, commerce, and investment, the political heads of both countries have also rightfully  found it necessary to project an alliance, that could possibly counter the weight of growing global disapproval. Pakistan makes its way through an existential threat to its security under Nawaz Sharif’s tutelage; yet it seems Erdogan has to some extent already secured the borders of his golden reign. Erdogan’s popularity, often likened to that of Ataturk’s, has made him one of the strongest figures in modern political history of the Turkish Republic. But while Turkey’s founder was known for his staunch advocacy of progressive liberal values, Erdogan’s critics often accuse him of undoing that carefully laid legacy.

Nonetheless, ties between Turkey and Pakistan are now bourgeoning into a deep friendship from an easy camaraderie; a recent two-day visit by the Turkish president to Pakistan has knowingly set the tone for that thriving relationship. It is no secret that the Punjab government has over the years not only employed Turkish firms for mega projects, but have also initiated large-scale urban schemes based entirely on the Turkish model, the Lahore Metro and the Lahore Waste Management being a few examples. Moreover, not only does Lahore hold an ‘Istanbul Chowk’. Istanbul itself holds a ‘Lahore chowk’; it is not surprising then, if Erdogan calls Pakistan “home away from home”. But in the larger scheme of things, Turkey’s professed support to Pakistan has helped shape a new narrative of bilateral cooperation: Turkey’s interest in being part of Pakistan’s investment opportunities brought on by the  CPEC, its mighty purge of the Fethullah Gulen’s Pak-Turk Education Foundation’s Turkish staff, and its President’s address to the joint session of the National Assembly thereby cementing subterranean political ties. Pakistan on the other hand has for some time required an ally (other than China) that could steer its tarnished image out of a diplomatic botch that the naysayers say it has landed itself in. In truth, not only does Pakistan require Turkey’s economic collaboration, it also needs its assertive global voice in reinforcing its own moral high ground. Turkey is the only country which has taken up the cause of Indian Occupied Kashmiris plight by supporting their right to a UN administered plebiscite, and remains the contact point for it in the OIC; in contrast, Pakistan supports turkey’s position on Cyprus, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.  In addition, Turkey also seems to be one of the few countries that has fully supported Pakistan’s bid for membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. The two nations are also in the process of strengthening economic relations with a Pakistan-Turkey Free Trade Agreement aiming to raise bilateral trade volume to $10 billion by 2020.

As of 2016, President Erdogan has visited Pakistan 7 times and is the only foreign leader to have addressed Pakistan’s parliament, the National Assembly, a record three times. Pakistan’s Foreign Office released a statement celebrating the unique and exemplary relationship between the two countries nd said the leadership of both countries is committed to transforming this historic relationship into a strong strategic partnership, in line with the realities of the 21st century, with bilateral relations experiencing tremendous growth and dynamism. The fact is, Erdogan was given the honor of gracing Pakistan’s National Assembly (not withstanding PTI’s absence), and it is in the respect accorded to him that the government of Pakistan isn’t just creating an environment of fostering newer, deeper, more substantial relations, but it is also a political move to justify the incumbent government’s hold to power amid the ever persistent Panama Leaks scandal. Pakistan’s alleged diplomatic isolation earlier has now spurred the institutional machinery into action: economic and political ties at the government’s behest, and forming a long-term working military relationship with the security establishment.

Keeping the economic and diplomatic ties aside, Turkey and Pakistan also enjoy cordial military relations. Recently, the two countries signed a deal to purchase 52 Super Mushkak trainer jets from Pakistan for Turkey to help train new pilots and support recovery of Turkish Armed Forces in the aftermath of pilot shortages after the attempted coup.

Yet, despite this celebrated collaboration between the two countries, Erdogan’s visit has coincided with a controversial decision taken by the Pakistani government: purging the country off its Turkish education staff from the Pak-Turk Schools. Since July’s abortive coup attempt in Turkey, the Turkish leadership has not only blamed Mr Gulen for sponsoring the overthrow but has also resulted in a global crackdown on the religious and educational networks led by the figure. Pakistan’s decision to send back teachers that have for many years benefitted thousands of Pakistani students in the school system is unduly severe to say the least; especially when one considers the dwindling state of education in Pakistan, on top of not being able to prove the staff’s links to illegal activity.

But we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in a world where decisions made at the top often trickle down in the most averse ways. Yet, one has to also remember that sometimes those decision makers will make decisions that are thought to be averse but are beneficial for a nation’s political, diplomatic, and strategic welfare. Erdogan’s Turkey took that decision during its failed coup attempt. Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan, similarly has had to make those decisions. While many critics had connected the Turkish President’s visit to the Sharif family’s turmoil in the newly erected Panama case, by associating the Turkish President as a close aid of the Qatari Prince (being called the ‘big guns’ in the case). The decision of the Supreme Court regarding the Panama case will not, and should not be in any way influenced by a foreign leader’s visit; we should not just empower our country’s institutions but also trust them to weed out anomalies. But one must be sure to never lose sight of a bigger strategic game Pakistan finds itself in; and it can use all the friends it can find. As for Pakistan’s position, if the new ‘Grey Wolf’ will provide credence to Pakistan’s dwindling position, then it is a decision that will go a long way. Here’s to decades of friendship between the two countries, second only to our ‘higher than the mountains, and deeper than the sea’ friendship with our Chinese counterparts.

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