The Turkish Generals’ Talk: The Strategic Insights of Turkey’s Struggle with the PKK

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 23

Turkish General Hilmi Özkök

In November, Turkish journalist Fikret Bila published a book entitled Komutanlar Cephesi (“The Commanders’ Front”) based on interviews with eight retired Turkish military commanders (Detay Yayıncılık, 2007). Prior to its publication, extracts from the book were serialized in Turkish in Milliyet (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 7) and in English in the Turkish Daily News (see Terrorism Focus, November 20).

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 political and cultural rights of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish minority, who are currently estimated to account for around 20 percent 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 EU.

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 [1] and the forced evacuation of over 3,500 villages in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country by Turkish security forces.

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 Kundakçı, 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 Doğan Güreş, 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 (APCs) from the Netherlands and Cobra and Super Cobra helicopters from the United States. Güreş 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. Güreş 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 Kundakçı. 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. Güreş said that he decided simply to ignore OHAL’s chain of command and assume control of all security throughout the OHAL region.

General Güreş 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. Güreş 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 Özgen 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, Özgen 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 fuelling support for the PKK. Özgen 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 Öcalan after his capture and imprisonment in 1999. Tokat argued that the decision to spare Öcalan 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 U.S. troops to transit through Turkey and open a second front against Iraq during the 2003 Gulf War. Kundakçı insisted that, if the parliamentary resolution had been passed, Turkey could have finished off the PKK by establishing a military presence in northern Iraq. 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. Özgen 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 Özgen, 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. Kundakçı 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 Güreş, and favored the eventual establishment of an independent state. General İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, who was chief of staff from 1994 to 1998, pointed to the PKK’s use of U.S., 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 Sèvres in 1920. General Aytaç 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 Sèvres.

The one commander who did not see an American hand behind the PKK was General Hilmi Özkök, who was chief of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) from 2002 to 2006. Özkök said that he had personally never seen evidence of U.S. support for the PKK. Özkök 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 U.S. 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 Özkök, 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 Özkök 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. Karadayı 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 Güreş 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 Kurdish state.


1. For example, Timur Sahan and Uğur Balık, Itirafçı, Bir JITEM’ci Anlattı (Aram Yayıncılık: Istanbul, 2004).