The road was badly pitted, in some places washed away. There had been no maintenance to the old military road since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, 15 years before. Only local farmers and smugglers used the road.
It was mid-October, 2003. We descended into a valley 20 kilometers northwest of Hajji Umran, the northernmost official border crossing between Iran and Iraq. Snow remained on the mountains to our north and east, although melting streams descended from the diminishing snow packs. In the distance, on the ridge marking the border, were lookout 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 stacked high with tomatoes sat beside fields or meandered slowly down the dirt road.
As we came around a curve at the foot of the valley, three young men ran out of one farmhouse, pointing Kalashnikovs at our convoy of five Toyota 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 down to meet the PKK fighters. A few minutes later they returned. “It’s no problem. They wanted to know where we were going,” one of my guards said. “They don’t bother people more heavily armed than they are.”
A bloody legacy
Many Iraqi Kurds are not so lucky. The PKK has denuded villages in the mountains of the “triangle border” where Iran, Iraq, and Turkey come together. The PKK occupies homes and farms, extorts illegal taxes, and metes out summary justice to those who do not comply. On occasion, the PKK mines roads. In a region where adults and children pile into the back of pick-up trucks for transportation, carnage from PKK mines can be immense.
The PKK’s terror in northern Iraq stretches more than a decade. In 1994, PKK terrorists rained mortars down on the rooftops of the mountaintop settlement of Amadya. Touring the ancient town in March 2001, residents showed me the damage to their homes.
PKK members also sabotaged bridges, cutting off villagers from their fields and disrupting the local economy. No matter how poor were Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic party and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan at their nadir, neither cultivated nor smuggled drugs. The same is not true of the PKK, which facilitates drug smuggling from Iran through Iraq and Turkey and into Europe.
In November 2000, fighting erupted on Qandil mountain between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and PKK after the PKK sought to take over the nearby town of Rania. More than 400 died in subsequent battles. Fighting was so severe that PUK television every evening broadcast the names of its murdered peshmurga. Municipal governments in towns like Darbandikan and Kuysanjaq erected to better accommodate mourners.
The PKK’s most bloody legacy is in Turkey. In the mid-1980s, the PKK initiated a violent campaign responsible for over 30,000 deaths in Turkey. The PKK raided villages and executed civilians. More Kurdish civilians died at the hands of the PKK than at the hands of the Turkish army. On July 18, 2004, I ducked into a teahouse in Konya, a large town in south-central Turkey. With no empty tables, I joined a middle-aged man reading a newspaper. Originally from Bursa, he had trained as a schoolteacher. Upon graduation, the Turkish government sought to assign him to Mardin, a largely Kurdish town in southeastern Turkey. But, the PKK had begun executing schoolteachers (whom they called state collaborators), and so he, as with of his classmates, refused to take their positions. The Turkish economy and education system suffered; southeastern Turkey continues to lag behind the rest of the state. Many Turks blame the PKK insurgency for the hyperinflation which plagued Turkey until three years ago (one U.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 southeastern Turkey, 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 bus to Van, seven hours away near the Iranian border, police stopped us more than a dozen times to check identity cards and bags, and to make sure there were no PKK among us.
Undermining the war on terrorism?
The continued PKK presence in northern Iraq is an embarrassment to the United States. Under terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483, the United States assumed legal responsibility as occupying power for the territory of Iraq. While our legal responsibility ended with the June 28, 2004, transfer of authority, moral responsibility continues. That a terrorist group–listed as such by the State Department since such designations were first made–operated with impunity from an area under U.S. responsibility undercuts the moral authority of the White House in waging the global war on terrorism.
The Bush administration’s failure to address the PKK presence in Iraq creates a dangerous precedent. It legitimizes the Lebanese government’s decision to allow Hezbollah to conduct terrorist operations with impunity, for example, despite Lebanon’s responsibilities under terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425.
U.S. toleration of the PKK threatens to emerge as a hot issue in coming weeks. Since the PKK ended its ceasefire on June 1, southeastern Turkey has suffered a renewed wave of roadside bombs and assassinations. On July 27, PKK fighters killed a Turkish policeman and 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 the iceberg. In Konya and Kayseri, Turkish students spoke of a recent PKK execution of three Turkish conscripts along the Iranian border.
Turks contrast Washington’s foot-dragging with positive noises coming from Iran, long a sponsor and facilitator of PKK terrorism. On July 28, following a meeting with Iranian Vice President Muhammad Reza Arif, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Iran would declare the PKK a terrorist organization and shut them down. The Iranian pledge may be insincere–previous Iranian promises to crack down on the PKK and al Qaeda were empty–but the perception of the Turkish public matters, especially as terrorism-related casualties rise.
As the PKK issue threatens to sour further the U.S.-Turkish partnership, the U.S. government is handicapped by its own bureaucracy. The problem is not the philosophical divide between the State and Defense Departments, at least at the upper levels. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman is a former ambassador to Turkey, and both he and his equivalent at the Pentagon, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith have a long history of supporting Turkish-American relations. The current ambassador to Ankara, Eric Edelman, assumed his post after 28 months as Principal Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs; he receives rave reviews from both Turks and Americans across the political spectrum, especially after the fumbling missteps of his predecessor
Instead, as with much in the global war on terrorism, the problem is in implementation. President Bush may enunciate a no-nonsense approach to policy, but the National Security Council neither coordinates effectively nor enforces policy discipline. Some NSC staff members have gone so far as to question the war on terror. Bush recently promoted a career diplomat who spoke of “Bush’s stupidity” among not only American, but also foreign colleagues. A recent NSC appointee has argued that the U.S. should take a more forgiving attitude toward terrorism, whereby “lesser penalties would apply to lesser levels of state sponsorship.” Such nuance flies in the face of Bush strategy, since it implies some terror to be permissible.
There remains, however, a major problem with clientitis, both at the lower levels of the State Department and at the upper levels of the military. The State Department dominated the Coalition Provisional Authority’s governance wing. Many U.S. diplomats serving in Baghdad spent their careers in the Arab world. Reading translated Arabic newspapers and drinking tea with government elites in Beirut, Damascus, and Riyadh takes its toll: Many had adopted the biases of the societies in which they served.
Among these biases was a cynical distrust and dislike of Turkey. One U.S. diplomat with recent service in the region scoffed at the idea that northern Iraq’s safe haven originated with Turkish president Turgat Ozal. Talking points drawn up by U.S. diplomats often failed to remind Kurdish politicians that it was Turkey’s contribution of Incirlik airbase which made possible for more than a decade the no-fly zone and, by extension, the existence of the Kurdistan regional government. Few U.S. diplomats reminded the Kurdistan Democratic party about significant Turkish subsidies that went to the peshmurga during the 1990s. American diplomats coming from the Arab world neither were aware nor appreciated Turkey’s democracy. One foreign-service officer described Syrian-occupied Lebanon as more democratic than Turkey.
A sour military relationship
Clientitis is greater among U.S. military officers. The problem is exacerbated by the geographic divisions between commands. Whereas U.S. military relations with Turkey fall under the European Command (EUCOM), U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) oversees Iraq and the Arab world. Many CENTCOM officials interact only with Arab elites. They listen to their complaints about U.S. policy and the inapplicability of democracy to their region. They fail to realize that it is neither U.S. policy nor democracy that is the problem, but rather Arab elites themselves. “We never had a problem with EUCOM,” a senior Turkish military official told me last week. “But CENTCOM was different. They looked at Turkey as a banana republic. They thought they could dictate to our leaders the way they dictate to Arab dictators. They forgot we were a democracy.”
The personal relationship between CENTCOM officers and the Turkish general staff has gone from bad to worse. On July 4, 2003, U.S. forces in Sulaymaniyah detained a Turkish commando force operating illegally in Iraq. Turkish authorities leaked the incident to the press. U.S. officials say that the Turkish commandoes had in their possession documents indicating that they sought to assassinate a Kirkuk political figure; Turkish authorities deny this. One CENTCOM official told me they had warned Ankara after previous incidents. During March 2003 negotiations in Ankara, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made clear that the U.S. would not tolerate Turkish incursions not coordinated with CENTCOM. While some elements of the Turkish military appear at fault, the failure of CENTCOM liaison officers to establish the close working relations with Turkish general staff that EUCOM personnel enjoyed exacerbated the situation.
Regardless of the fault or blame, the July 4 incident has had a deeper lasting impact in Turkey than did the dispute over passage of U.S. troops. Many U.S. officials serving in Baghdad trace Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer’s hardening attitude–if not antipathy–toward Turkey to the Sulaymaniyah incident.
The difficulty with fighting the PKK
As war in Iraq approached, Turkish diplomats and generals both raised concern about the presence of the PKK. They have continued to do so since. American officials respond that Washington takes seriously Turkey’s concerns. But, a gap remains between U.S. rhetoric and actions, severely straining Washington’s credibility. “You guys simply don’t understand how seriously we take this,” a long-time Turkish diplomatic acquaintance told me at an Ankara teahouse last month.
According to both Turkish and U.S. sources, CENTCOM has promised to share with Turkey plans which address the PKK, but consistently fails to deliver. There may be legitimate reasons for planning delays, but CENTCOM leaves the impression that it is filibustering. “I can understand their concerns,” said a Turkish general, acknowledging that rooting PKK out of inhospitable terrain is difficult, “But I can’t understand why they won’t be honest with us.”
CENTCOM also suffers a credibility gap at home. Even as I was stopped by PKK fighters, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Joint Staff continued to claim ignorance of the PKK’s exact location. This was dishonest or disingenuous. As we continued on from the de facto PKK checkpoint, we could see from the roadside a well-tended PKK graveyard and also a permanent PKK compound under camouflage, mesh netting. Twice rounding bends beneath high bluffs, we saw automatic weapon-toting PKK fighters over looking the road.
The Joint Staff’s claims are more troubling given rumors that, last autumn, apparently without interagency authorization, some members of the 101st Airborne met with PKK representatives in Mosul, thereby legitimizing the terrorist group in direct contravention to the policy of the commander-in-chief.
While I lived in Iraq, every few months I would visit Sidikan, a mountainous district northeast of Diana, sometimes spending the night on a floor of a mud brick farmhouse so as to not have to rush back to the CPA’s hotel in Erbil. Local farmers would complain about the PKK, which extorts taxes and seizes land and property. “All of us know where the PKK is. Any of us could point out where they are, if the U.S. army asked,” one old farmer said. It was a sentiment that was expressed by various elders in different villages. Karim Khan Bradosti, the tribal leader in the area, has repeatedly offered assistance and cooperation to American forces in the fight against the PKK.
Ironically, proactive deployment might obviate the need for a confrontation. Despite the proximity to the unguarded Iranian frontier, many of the areas occupied by the PKK have no U.S. military, Iraqi military, or peshmurga presence. Villagers, Kurdish officials, and peshmurga all say that small garrisons of Coalition forces in valleys and along the Iranian frontier would fill a vacuum, and force the PKK back across the border into Iran which, continues to 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 Clinton administration not left unaddressed a vacuum in Afghanistan. Our impotence toward the PKK threatens to undermine our credibility not only in Turkey, but also in our fight against terrorists and states like Lebanon which provide them safe haven. With regard to the PKK, the stakes are higher. Not only is the president’s credibility on the line, but so too is a 50-year partnership with one of our most valuable allies.
–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.