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Thursday, August 05, 2004

The PKK Factor, Michael Rubin


By Micheal Rubin

The PKK Factor

Another critical enemy front in the war on terror.

The road was badly pitted, in some places washed away. There had beenno maintenance to the old military road since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, 15 years before. Only local farmers and smugglers used theroad.It was mid-October, 2003. We descended into a valley 20 kilometersnorthwest of Hajji Umran, the northernmost official border crossingbetween Iran and Iraq. Snow remained on the mountains to our northand east, although melting streams descended from the diminishingsnow packs. In the distance, on the ridge marking the border, werelookout posts belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.Some rusted and twisted mortar shells remained on grassy fields,which narrowed and terraced as they approached the Iranian border.Farmhouses were scattered on the narrow plain. Pickup trucks stackedhigh with tomatoes sat beside fields or meandered slowly down thedirt road.As we came around a curve at the foot of the valley, three young menran out of one farmhouse, pointing Kalashnikovs at our convoy of fiveToyota SUVs. They were fighters with the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan,better known by their acronym, the PKK.We stopped. Ten armed guards got out of our vehicles. Two walked downto meet the PKK fighters. A few minutes later they returned. "It's noproblem. They wanted to know where we were going," one of my guardssaid. "They don't bother people more heavily armed than they are."A bloody legacyMany Iraqi Kurds are not so lucky. The PKK has denuded villages inthe mountains of the "triangle border" where Iran, Iraq, and Turkeycome together. The PKK occupies homes and farms, extorts illegaltaxes, and metes out summary justice to those who do not comply. Onoccasion, the PKK mines roads. In a region where adults and childrenpile into the back of pick-up trucks for transportation, carnage fromPKK mines can be immense.The PKK's terror in northern Iraq stretches more than a decade. In1994, PKK terrorists rained mortars down on the rooftops of themountaintop settlement of Amadya. Touring the ancient town in March2001, residents showed me the damage to their homes.PKK members also sabotaged bridges, cutting off villagers from theirfields and disrupting the local economy. No matter how poor wereMasud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic party and Jalal Talabani'sPatriotic Union of Kurdistan at their nadir, neither cultivated norsmuggled drugs. The same is not true of the PKK, which facilitatesdrug smuggling from Iran through Iraq and Turkey and into Europe.In November 2000, fighting erupted on Qandil mountain between thePatriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and PKK after the PKK sought totake over the nearby town of Rania. More than 400 died in subsequentbattles. Fighting was so severe that PUK television every eveningbroadcast the names of its murdered peshmurga. Municipal governmentsin towns like Darbandikan and Kuysanjaq erected to better accommodatemourners.The PKK's most bloody legacy is in Turkey. In the mid-1980s, the PKKinitiated a violent campaign responsible for over 30,000 deaths inTurkey. The PKK raided villages and executed civilians. More Kurdishcivilians died at the hands of the PKK than at the hands of theTurkish army. On July 18, 2004, I ducked into a teahouse in Konya, alarge town in south-central Turkey. With no empty tables, I joined amiddle-aged man reading a newspaper. Originally from Bursa, he hadtrained as a schoolteacher. Upon graduation, the Turkish governmentsought to assign him to Mardin, a largely Kurdish town insoutheastern Turkey. But, the PKK had begun executing schoolteachers(whom they called state collaborators), and so he, as with of hisclassmates, refused to take their positions. The Turkish economy andeducation system suffered; southeastern Turkey continues to lagbehind the rest of the state. Many Turks blame the PKK insurgency forthe hyperinflation which plagued Turkey until three years ago (oneU.S. dollar is equivalent to over 1.4 million Turkish lira today).Real-estate firms advertise homes costing trillions liras).I spent August 2000 in Diyarbakir, the largest town in southeasternTurkey, waiting for permission to cross into northern Iraq.Diyarbakir was emerging from years of terrorism and insurgency.Hotels were empty and streets deserted at night. Taking a public busto Van, seven hours away near the Iranian border, police stopped usmore than a dozen times to check identity cards and bags, and to makesure there were no PKK among us.Undermining the war on terrorism?The continued PKK presence in northern Iraq is an embarrassment tothe United States. Under terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution1483, the United States assumed legal responsibility as occupyingpower for the territory of Iraq. While our legal responsibility endedwith the June 28, 2004, transfer of authority, moral responsibilitycontinues. That a terrorist group — listed as such by the StateDepartment since such designations were first made — operated withimpunity from an area under U.S. responsibility undercuts the moralauthority of the White House in waging the global war on terrorism.The Bush administration's failure to address the PKK presence in Iraqcreates a dangerous precedent. It legitimizes the Lebanesegovernment's decision to allow Hezbollah to conduct terroristoperations with impunity, for example, despite Lebanon'sresponsibilities under terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425.U.S. toleration of the PKK threatens to emerge as a hot issue incoming weeks. Since the PKK ended its ceasefire on June 1,southeastern Turkey has suffered a renewed wave of roadside bombs andassassinations. On July 27, PKK fighters killed a Turkish policemanand a soldier in the southeastern province of Bingol. On August 2,Turkish soldiers and PKK fighters clashed in southeastern Turkey.Those incidents that Turkish newspapers report may be the tip of theiceberg. In Konya and Kayseri, Turkish students spoke of a recent PKKexecution of three Turkish conscripts along the Iranian border.Turks contrast Washington's foot-dragging with positive noises comingfrom Iran, long a sponsor and facilitator of PKK terrorism. On July28, following a meeting with Iranian Vice President Muhammad RezaArif, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Iranwould declare the PKK a terrorist organization and shut them down.The Iranian pledge may be insincere — previous Iranian promises tocrack down on the PKK and al Qaeda were empty — but the perception ofthe Turkish public matters, especially as terrorism-relatedcasualties rise.Bureaucratic divisionsAs the PKK issue threatens to sour further the U.S.-Turkishpartnership, the U.S. government is handicapped by its ownbureaucracy. The problem is not the philosophical divide between theState and Defense Departments, at least at the upper levels.Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman is a former ambassador toTurkey, and both he and his equivalent at the Pentagon,Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith have a long history ofsupporting Turkish-American relations. The current ambassador toAnkara, Eric Edelman, assumed his post after 28 months as PrincipalDeputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs;he receives rave reviews from both Turks and Americans across thepolitical spectrum, especially after the fumbling missteps of hispredecessor.Instead, as with much in the global war on terrorism, the problem isin implementation. President Bush may enunciate a no-nonsenseapproach to policy, but the National Security Council neithercoordinates effectively nor enforces policy discipline. Some NSCstaff members have gone so far as to question the war on terror. Bushrecently promoted a career diplomat who spoke of "Bush's stupidity"among not only American, but also foreign colleagues. A recent NSCappointee has argued that the U.S. should take a more forgivingattitude toward terrorism, whereby "lesser penalties would apply tolesser levels of state sponsorship." Such nuance flies in the face ofBush strategy, since it implies some terror to be permissible.There remains, however, a major problem with clientitis, both at thelower levels of the State Department and at the upper levels of themilitary. The State Department dominated the Coalition ProvisionalAuthority's governance wing. Many U.S. diplomats serving in Baghdadspent their careers in the Arab world. Reading translated Arabicnewspapers and drinking tea with government elites in Beirut,Damascus, and Riyadh takes its toll: Many had adopted the biases ofthe societies in which they served.Among these biases was a cynical distrust and dislike of Turkey. OneU.S. diplomat with recent service in the region scoffed at the ideathat northern Iraq's safe haven originated with Turkish presidentTurgat Ozal. Talking points drawn up by U.S. diplomats often failedto remind Kurdish politicians that it was Turkey's contribution ofIncirlik airbase which made possible for more than a decade the no-fly zone and, by extension, the existence of the Kurdistan regionalgovernment. Few U.S. diplomats reminded the Kurdistan Democraticparty about significant Turkish subsidies that went to the peshmurgaduring the 1990s. American diplomats coming from the Arab worldneither were aware nor appreciated Turkey's democracy. One foreign-service officer described Syrian-occupied Lebanon as more democraticthan Turkey.A sour military relationshipClientitis is greater among U.S. military officers. The problem isexacerbated by the geographic divisions between commands. WhereasU.S. military relations with Turkey fall under the European Command(EUCOM), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) oversees Iraq and the Arabworld. Many CENTCOM officials interact only with Arab elites. Theylisten to their complaints about U.S. policy and the inapplicabilityof democracy to their region. They fail to realize that it is neitherU.S. policy nor democracy that is the problem, but rather Arab elitesthemselves. "We never had a problem with EUCOM," a senior Turkishmilitary official told me last week. "But CENTCOM was different. Theylooked at Turkey as a banana republic. They thought they coulddictate to our leaders the way they dictate to Arab dictators. Theyforgot we were a democracy."The personal relationship between CENTCOM officers and the Turkishgeneral staff has gone from bad to worse. On July 4, 2003, U.S.forces in Sulaymaniyah detained a Turkish commando force operatingillegally in Iraq. Turkish authorities leaked the incident to thepress. U.S. officials say that the Turkish commandoes had in theirpossession documents indicating that they sought to assassinate aKirkuk political figure; Turkish authorities deny this. One CENTCOMofficial told me they had warned Ankara after previous incidents.During March 2003 negotiations in Ankara, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzadmade clear that the U.S. would not tolerate Turkish incursions notcoordinated with CENTCOM. While some elements of the Turkish militaryappear at fault, the failure of CENTCOM liaison officers to establishthe close working relations with Turkish general staff that EUCOMpersonnel enjoyed exacerbated the situation.Regardless of the fault or blame, the July 4 incident has had adeeper lasting impact in Turkey than did the dispute over passage ofU.S. troops. Many U.S. officials serving in Baghdad trace CoalitionProvisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer's hardeningattitude — if not antipathy — toward Turkey to the Sulaymaniyahincident.The difficulty with fighting the PKKAs war in Iraq approached, Turkish diplomats and generals both raisedconcern about the presence of the PKK. They have continued to do sosince. American officials respond that Washington takes seriouslyTurkey's concerns. But, a gap remains between U.S. rhetoric andactions, severely straining Washington's credibility. "You guyssimply don't understand how seriously we take this," a long-timeTurkish diplomatic acquaintance told me at an Ankara teahouse lastmonth.According to both Turkish and U.S. sources, CENTCOM has promised toshare with Turkey plans which address the PKK, but consistently failsto deliver. There may be legitimate reasons for planning delays, butCENTCOM leaves the impression that it is filibustering. "I canunderstand their concerns," said a Turkish general, acknowledgingthat rooting PKK out of inhospitable terrain is difficult, "But Ican't understand why they won't be honest with us."CENTCOM also suffers a credibility gap at home. Even as I was stoppedby PKK fighters, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Joint Staffcontinued to claim ignorance of the PKK's exact location. This wasdishonest or disingenuous. As we continued on from the de facto PKKcheckpoint, we could see from the roadside a well-tended PKKgraveyard and also a permanent PKK compound under camouflage, meshnetting. Twice rounding bends beneath high bluffs, we saw automaticweapon-toting PKK fighters over looking the road.The Joint Staff's claims are more troubling given rumors that, lastautumn, apparently without interagency authorization, some members ofthe 101st Airborne met with PKK representatives in Mosul, therebylegitimizing the terrorist group in direct contravention to thepolicy of the commander-in-chief.High StakesWhile I lived in Iraq, every few months I would visit Sidikan, amountainous district northeast of Diana, sometimes spending the nighton a floor of a mud brick farmhouse so as to not have to rush back tothe CPA's hotel in Erbil. Local farmers would complain about the PKK,which extorts taxes and seizes land and property. "All of us knowwhere the PKK is. Any of us could point out where they are, if theU.S. army asked," one old farmer said. It was a sentiment that wasexpressed by various elders in different villages. Karim KhanBradosti, the tribal leader in the area, has repeatedly offeredassistance and cooperation to American forces in the fight againstthe PKK.Ironically, proactive deployment might obviate the need for aconfrontation. Despite the proximity to the unguarded Iranianfrontier, many of the areas occupied by the PKK have no U.S.military, Iraqi military, or peshmurga presence. Villagers, Kurdishofficials, and peshmurga all say that small garrisons of Coalitionforces in valleys and along the Iranian frontier would fill a vacuum,and force the PKK back across the border into Iran which, continuesto provide aid and comfort to the group.One thing should be clear, though. Terrorists exploit a vacuum.Nearly 3,000 Americans would be alive today had the Clintonadministration not left unaddressed a vacuum in Afghanistan. Ourimpotence toward the PKK threatens to undermine our credibility notonly in Turkey, but also in our fight against terrorists and stateslike Lebanon which provide them safe haven. With regard to the PKK,the stakes are higher. Not only is the president's credibility on theline, but so too is a 50-year partnership with one of our mostvaluable allies.


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