Fighting talk from Turkey's generals
By Gareth Jenkins
In November, Turkish journalist Fikret Bila published a book entitled Komutanlar
Cephesi (The Commanders' Front) based on interviews with eight
retired Turkish military commanders.
Prior to its publication, extracts from the book were serialized in Turkish in
Milliyet and in English in the Turkish Daily News. Komutanlar Cephesi focuses
primarily on the military campaign to suppress the insurgency of the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK). However, it also addresses the wider issue of the
cultural rights of Turkey's substantial Kurdish minority, who are currently
estimated to account for around 20% of the country's population of 75 million.
The book also contains interesting insights on the way in which members of the
military view the policies and intentions of the United States and the European
Union. Bila enjoys good relations with the Turkish security establishment. In
his interviews, he avoided questions about the impact of the more controversial
aspects of Turkey's struggle against the PKK, including: widespread
human-rights abuses, the well-documented campaign of assassination against
suspected PKK sympathizers  and the forced evacuation of over 3,500 villages
in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country by Turkish security
The PKK becomes a strategic priority
Former chief of the general staff Kenan Evren, who led the 1980 military coup
and served as Turkey's president from 1982 to 1989, admitted that the first PKK
attack in August 1984 took the military by surprise. Initially the Turkish
military attempted to combat the PKK using conventional weapons and tactics.
However, the number of PKK attacks escalated from 47 in 1984 to 245 in 1987 and
1,111 in 1990. Lieutenant General Hasan Kundakci, who was a field commander
during the early years of the PKK's insurgency, noted that the first generation
of PKK militants were also the best trained, having spent several years
preparing for the insurgency in camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Once this
first generation began to suffer losses, their replacements were less
well-trained and less effective.
General Dogan Gures, who served as chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, spent
heavily on re-equipping the military, buying M-111 and M-114 armored personnel
carriers from the Netherlands and Cobra and Super Cobra helicopters from the
United States. Gures believed that the G-3 rifles being used by the Turkish
army were inferior to the AK-47s favored by the PKK. In 1991, he acquired
100,000 AK-47s free of charge from stocks which had belonged to the recently
collapsed East Germany. Gures said that Turkey also bought a large quantity of
weapons and equipment on the black market in Iraq from stocks abandoned by
Saddam Hussein's army in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.
The PKK produced a change in Turkey's strategic priorities, according to
Kundakic. Previously, Greece had been regarded as the main threat and the First
Turkish Army, which is based in Thrace, received priority in terms of equipment
and personnel. Starting in the early 1990s, however, priority shifted to the
Second Turkish Army, which is based in southeastern Turkey.
Martial law, which had been declared throughout Turkey in the wake of the 1980
coup, was lifted in the southeast of the country in 1987 and replaced by a
state of "Extraordinary Situation" (OHAL). Under OHAL, security was the
responsibility of the police and gendarmerie under local governors and the
Ministry of the Interior. The regular military was completely excluded from the
command structure. Gures said that he decided simply to ignore OHAL's chain of
command and assume control of all security throughout the OHAL region.
General Gures noted that during the late 1980s, the security forces had only
conducted daytime operations against specific PKK targets. As a result, the PKK
was able to control large swaths of the countryside in southeastern Turkey
after dark. Gures founded Turkey's first Special Forces battalion, increased
commando training and ordered units in the field to stage night operations and
control territory rather than just seek out PKK units.
Most of the commanders agreed that the establishment in spring 1991 of a safe
haven for the Iraqi Kurds worked to Turkey's advantage; not least by enabling
Turkey to stage cross-border operations against PKK bases in northern Iraq
without danger of a confrontation with Saddam Hussein's forces. Former corps
commander General Necati Ozgen claimed that a cross-border operation in October
1992 involving 50,000 Turkish troops broke the back of the PKK, leading to its
eventual military containment during the mid-1990s.
Together with the other commanders, however, Ozgen complained that the civilian
government had squandered the opportunity provided by the Turkish military's
success on the battlefield by failing to address the social and economic
problems that were fueling support for the PKK. Ozgen accused the government of
not investing in education in the region while Lieutenant General Altay Tokat
criticized it for not trying to boost the local economy.
Almost all of the commanders were also highly critical of the government for
failing to hang PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan after his capture and imprisonment
in 1999. Tokat argued that the decision to spare Ocalan had boosted the morale
of PKK militants and prevented the organization's collapse.
There was similar denunciation of the Turkish Parliament's failure on March 1,
2003, to pass a resolution which would have allowed US troops to transit
through Turkey and open a second front against Iraq during the 2003 Gulf War.
Kundakic insisted that, if the parliamentary resolution had been passed, Turkey
could have finished off the PKK by establishing a military presence in northern
Tokat went one step further and argued that Turkey could have used the
parliamentary resolution to create a de facto Turkish protectorate over the
Iraqi province of Mosul. Ozgen argued that Turkey could still invade northern
Iraq, destroy the PKK bases in the area and establish a permanent security
zone. He dismissed concerns about a possible military clash with the United
States by arguing that the Turkish military was more than strong enough to
confront the United States on the battlefield.
Foreign support for the PKK
Although they were less bellicose than Ozgen, almost all of the commanders were
deeply suspicious of the Kurdish polices propagated not only by the United
States but by the West in general. Kundakic claimed that the United States had
been actively cooperating with the PKK since the 2003 Gulf War as part of its
strategy of trying to assert control over the greater Middle East. Both the EU
and the United States were supporting the PKK, according to General Gures, and
favored the eventual establishment of an independent state.
General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, who was chief of staff from 1994 to 1998,
pointed to the PKK's use of US, French and Italian-made weapons as proof of
foreign support for the organization. Tokat asserted that what he described as
the "imperialist powers" were seeking revenge on Turkey for the opposition of
the Turkish nationalist movement to the Kurdish state recommended by the
short-lived Treaty of Sevres in 1920. General Aytac Yalman, who served as
commander of the Turkish Land Forces from 2002 to 2004, also drew a parallel
between the current situation and the Treaty of Sevres.
The one commander who did not see an American hand behind the PKK was General
Hilmi Ozkok, who was chief of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) from 2002 to 2006.
Ozkok said that he had personally never seen evidence of US support for the
PKK. Ozkok was also alone in believing that the commander of a unit of Turkish
Special Forces in Suleymaniye, northern Iraq, was right not to resist when
taken into custody by US troops in July 2003 on suspicion of plotting to
assassinate an Iraqi Kurdish official. All of the other commanders thought that
he should have ordered his men to fight to the death, and several suggested
that he should have been court-martialed for not doing so.
Resolving the crisis
In the 1980s, the Turkish state officially denied the existence of the Kurds,
their language and their culture, claiming that they were "mountain Turks" who
had temporarily forgotten their true identity. However, all of the commanders
are now not only prepared to acknowledge the existence of Kurds, but supported
their right to speak their own language and preserve their own culture. Evren
went so far as to suggest that all civil servants posted to southeastern Turkey
should be able to speak both Turkish and Kurdish.
The endorsement of the Kurdish language was not wholesale, however: General
Ozkok, the most liberal of the commanders interviewed by Bila, still insisted
that Kurdish should not be used as a medium of instruction in schools,
describing such use as a threat to national unity.
Only Ozkok appeared optimistic about the prospects for a resolution of Turkey's
Kurdish problem, predicting that EU accession would result in higher welfare
levels that would undercut the appeal of separatist nationalism. The others
were more pessimistic.
Tokat believed that an independent Kurdish state would soon be established in
northern Iraq, which would inspire Turkey's own Kurdish independence movement.
Karadayi maintained that the Turkish state had to be more aggressive in
combating both Kurdish nationalism and the PKK. Yalman said that Turkey had
failed to solve its Kurdish problem during its first two phases, which he
described as the "social phase" and the "military phase" and that it was now
entering a third "political phase", which was likely to be even more
problematic. The greatest fear of General Gures was that Turkish public opinion
would eventually become so tired of the Kurdish problem that there would
eventually be popular support for ceding territory for the creation of a
Gareth Jenkins is a writer and journalist resident in Istanbul, where he
has been based for the last 20 years.
1. For example, Timur Sahan and Ugur Balik, Itirafci, Bir JITEM'ci Anlatti
(Aram Yayincilik: Istanbul, 2004).