Going back over centuries to when Turkish-origin Mughal emperors ruled the entire Indian subcontinent, Pakistan shares historical, cultural and religious roots with Turkey. Even Pakistan's official national language Urdu has its linguistic roots in the Turkish language and it is a precious friendship. One of the best examples of the Pak-Turk emotional bond is that quite a few landmarks in Pakistani cities are named after Turkey's leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while a central avenue in Ankara is named Cinnah Caddesi (Jinnah Street in English) after Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah.After Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's visit to Ankara in early 2019, bilateral ties with Turkey have been further enhanced on military and strategic levels. Being traditional allies, Turkey and Pakistan have a special rapport but their recent consolidation of defense interests is unprecedented and it signifies a convergence of the national interests of both the nations.
Previously, a Pak-Turk Military Consultative Group (MSG) was established in 1988 while the first high-level military dialogue was established in 2003. Now under this same mechanism nearly 60 agreements for defense cooperation have been inked and the forum has been upgraded to a High-Level Strategic Co-operation Council.
Several recent developments may have helped to consolidate the Pak-Turk dimension. First, the regional geopolitical scenario is getting worse and Turkey faces new risks on its borders due to the ongoing Syrian civil war and Arab-world frictions with Iran and Qatar. Likewise, Pakistan faces a terror threat from across its border with Afghanistan.
Second, U.S. relations with both Turkey and Pakistan have been extremely erratic over the past year. While Ankara does not share the same stance as Washington over the situation in Syria, Pak-U.S. ties have been unpredictable due to the never-ending civil war and instability in Afghanistan. With the Istanbul Tripartite Summit between Turkey-Pakistan-Afghanistan, Ankara will be playing an important role in resolving the Afghanistan conundrum soon.
The Pak-Turk dimension
Based on these developments, Pak-Turk ties have become further enmeshed and defense is top priority. This can be further gauged from the fact that three military attaches from each of the forces have been posted in the Pakistan embassy at Ankara. Upgrading defense relations became essential when Pakistan faced constraints in the upkeep of F-16s it was provided by the U.S.
Filling the vacuum left by Washington, Ankara came to the rescue and helped upgrade a batch of 41 F-16 fighter jets for the Pakistan Air Force, manufacturing engines as well as spare parts for the aircraft. And after a plethora of significant defense deals in 2018, Turkey has become Pakistan's second biggest arms supplier after China.
Two of the largest defense deals between Islamabad and Ankara have been the procurement of four MILGEM Ada Corvettes for the Pakistan Navy and the sale of 30 Turkish T129 Advanced Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance (ATAK) helicopters to Pakistan. According to the then National Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli, the sale of the four ships was "the largest single export in the history of the Turkish defense industry," it was a multibillion deal and two ships each would be built in Istanbul and Karachi respectively.
Even the ATAK helicopters deal is worth $1.5 billion. Notably, ATAK helicopters are indigenously manufactured by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) under license from the Italian-British AgustaWestland and are prestigious assets for the Turkish Army. In 2017, Turkey had purchased 52 MFI-17 Super Mushshak training planes from Pakistan and it remains the second most prominent participant (after China) in Pakistan's International Defense Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS).
Having a growing defense industry, Pakistan wants to make headway in the global market and it has been supplying small arms to Turkey in compliance with NATO specifications. According to former air force pilot Kaiser Tufail, closer defense ties "could well take the shape of a 'Block-4' JF-17 developed by Turkey and Pakistan" to be "considered for joint design and co-production," after which "a stealth fighter would then be a logical next step."
Collaborating in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles these days, both countries could also focus on manufacturing a fifth-generation fighter jet, especially as Pakistan has already co-produced the JF-17 Thunder with China.
Not limited to products and defense capabilities, Turkey and Pakistan are also training their troops to meet any unforeseen challenge together. Considering the fast-changing and erratic security dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia in recent years, military preparedness is essential.
In this connection, six-day exercises between Turkish, Pakistani and Uzbek armies were held in the last week of April in eastern Uzbekistan. Named the Partnership Shield 2019, these drills simulated terrorist infiltrations in a country and the next phase will take place in Turkey.
Having had annual military and air force training exchange programs since 2000, Turkey has also been providing training to Pakistan Air Force pilots and helped in the upkeep of Pakistan's fleet of F-16 aircraft. Over the last decade, nearly 1,500 Pakistani military officers have received training in Turkey.
Addressing officers at the Risalpur air force base recently, Turkish Air Force Chief Gen. Hasan Küçükkakyüz resolved that "Turkey will always stand by Pakistan through thick and thin," and this statement exemplifies the Turkey-Pakistan equation.
As a strategic partner, Islamabad can help Ankara bridge the divide between the East and West. Preferring ambiguous neutrality to taking sides, Ankara has maintained balance in its foreign policy and extending military ties with Pakistan increases its leverage in Asia even as the European Union is trying to assess a new direction.
As demonstrated time and again, Ankara remains the most dependable ally for Islamabad, it was the only country which supported Pakistan when it was being put on the "grey list" by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) last year. Another instance of unflinching Turkish support is its backing Pakistan's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group based on non-discriminatory criteria.
Along with strategic ties, economic engagement has also sped up and a Strategic Economic Framework (SEF) and Free Trade Agreement (FTA) are being mulled over. Once operational, the SEF could increase the trade volume five times over. Meanwhile, a direct Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad TIR trade corridor was inaugurated last year in April. Linking up Iran, Central Asia, Turkey and Europe, the trade possibilities with this fast-track route are endless.
* Foreign affairs journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan