Perhaps the most significant, if overlooked, component of the recent Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq was the common goal of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) high command and Ankara to explain their concerns, motivations, and intentions to the international community. Given the limited objectives and duration of the campaign, there is now a lively debate in the Turkish media about whether the withdrawal, which coincided with a visit to Ankara by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, was taken under pressure from Washington.
The day after the withdrawal began, TSK Chief of the General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit denied that U.S. pressure had been an influence, saying, “This was a decision taken on military reasons altogether. There was not even a hint from politicians or foreigners to withdraw” (Milliyet, March 1). Besides Gates, on February 28 U.S. President George W. Bush urged Turkey to end its withdrawal “as quickly as possible,” but Buyukanit said the decision to pull out was given long before Gates arrived in Ankara, telling reporters, “One-third of our forces were inside Turkey on Wednesday [February 27], but it would have been murder to announce the withdrawal then. The most critical phase of an operation is withdrawal…When you say your forces are withdrawing, it amounts to telling terrorists to set up an ambush. That would be an enormous mistake.”
U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson echoed Buyukanit’s remarks, telling a reporter, “The Turkish Army decided on its own to get out of northern Iraq. It had nothing to do with the U.S.” (Hurriyet, March 6).
Sensing an opportunity to portray themselves as true nationalists, opposition politicians, however, criticized the abrupt Turkish withdrawal. On March 4 Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal told party members, “I don’t believe that the TSK could conduct an operation for only eight days, and the operation’s end was a surprise to the world. The question of why the TSK ended its ground operation on the eighth day is still open, especially when you consider that the operation had been going successfully” (Hurriyet, March 5). Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli voiced similar sentiments, telling his parliamentary caucus, “The public is suspicious about these developments. There is a serious lack of harmonization between state organs” (Turkiye, March 5).
The TSK’s General Staff was quick to react, issuing a statement the same day noting, “Remarks made by circles other than the press were targeted at an institution that fights terrorism and sacrifices soldiers. These remarks are unfair and worthless attacks” (Hurriyet, March 5).
Since the end of the incursion Ankara has striven to keep the United States and its NATO allies “in the loop.” On March 6 Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan attended a meeting of the NATO Council in Brussels. Seeking to remind allies about Turkey’s unique contributions in Afghanistan, Babacan reminded council members that the Afghan population trusts Turkey, because unlike other allies, Afghans do not suspect Turkey of having ulterior motives. During the council meeting Babacan also met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Aksam, March 10).
At the same time that Babacan was meeting with Rice, back in Washington Gates repudiated Lt. Gen. General Raymond Odierno’s apparent suggestion that Ankara might talk to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Gates told reporters, “Well, I don’t know what Gen. Odierno said or did not say, but I will tell you that when I was in Ankara last week… Certainly nobody I talked to was of a mind to have any conversations with the PKK” (Hurriyet, March 7).
Further insights into how the TSK regards terrorism emerged on March 10-11, as Ankara’s Center of Excellence Defense Against Terrorism (TMMM) hosted the institute’s Second International Symposium on Global Terrorism and International Cooperation. Experts from the OSCE, United States, China, Egypt, Pakistan, Spain, Mexico, and Russia presented papers at the two-day gathering (Cumhuriyet, March 10).
Buyukanit stressed to his audience that the international community needed to do more to rein in foreign militant groups operating on their territory, “Otherwise, the fight against global terrorism will lose ground. Supporting terrorism is equal to feeding a venomous snake. You can never make sure that the snake would not bite the feeder. The boomerang effect of terrorism will sooner or later harm collaborators of terrorism” (Anadolu Ajansi, March 10). Buyukanit added, “Terrorists see the nation-state as a major threat to their survival. It is clear that no nation-state can succeed against terrorists without international cooperation. For that reason, nation-states should think internationally and act regionally” (Hurriyet, March 11).
Buyukanit’s remarks on Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor, were the most somber, however, with the general warning, “I hope Pakistan will reach stability as soon as possible, and we should extend every kind of support to them. Otherwise, if the administration is rendered ineffective in one way, a structure like the Taliban may control Pakistan, and this is a possibility… [if this happens] the world will come face to face with a terrorist organization having nuclear power at its disposal, for the first time.”
Buyukanit’s presentation neatly encapsulated Ankara’s concerns about terrorism, epitomized by the fact that there is not even a common definition of terrorism. Turkey feels let down by its European allies in its struggle with the PKK, as Europeans allow Roj-TV to broadcast propaganda throughout Europe. As Buyukanit reminded his audience, terrorism now has a global reach and concerted international efforts, such as the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, are needed to stop it.