U.S. Special Forces Hunting Turkish PKK Leaders

In this morning’s Washington Post, Robert Novak reports that select members of Congress were informed last week of a covert operation now underway to target leaders of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey. According to Novak:

The development of an autonomous Kurdish entity inside Iraq, resulting from the decline and fall of Saddam Hussein, has alarmed the Turkish government. That led to Ankara’s refusal to allow U.S. combat troops to enter Iraq through Turkey, an eleventh-hour complication for the 2003 invasion. As the Kurds’ political power grew inside Iraq, the Turkish government became steadily more uneasy about the centuries-old project of a Kurdistan spreading across international boundaries—and chewing up big pieces of Turkey…

Turkey has a well-trained, well-equipped army of 250,000 near the border, facing some 4,000 PKK fighters hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq. But significant cross-border operations surely would bring to the PKK’s side the military forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the best U.S. ally in Iraq. What is Washington to do in the dilemma of two friends battling each other on an unwanted new front in Iraq?

This is a good question. None of the options are particularly attractive. As Iraq sage (and Kurdish sympathizer) Peter Galbraith writes in the latest New York Review of Books, one option for withdrawing the majority of U.S. troops from Iraq, but leaving enough of a presence to contain the aftermath (and Iran), would be to base a smaller, semi-permanent force in Iraqi Kurdistan. But if Turkey were to invade northern Iraq, this would put the U.S. in an almost impossible position: balancing the continued peace and stability of Iraq’s Kurdish areas (the country’s only success story) against the deeply-held concerns of Turkey, one of America’s best allies in the region… this despite the overwhelming hostility of its citizens to U.S. foreign policy.

That there is war brewing in southeastern Turkey comes as no surprise. Even when I visited the region in early 2005, a time of relative calm, most Kurds I met there held the view that the Turkish government’s long war against the PKK rebels was not over. The mere existence of “Iraqi Kurdistan” (don’t call it Iraq) had given much-needed encouragement to the PKK, whose powers had been waning since the 1999 capture of their fugitive leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Moreover, sympathetic leaders across the border had allowed the PKK to shelter and reequip in the mountains of northern Iraq, while staging periodic raids across the border into Turkey.

For their part, the Turks had maintained a significant military presence in the southeast, complete with mountain-top observation posts, mine fields, and numerous check points on the roads leading in and out of Kurdish cities. Even then, their operations were not limited to Turkey. During a visit to the Iraqi border city of Zakho, I was shown a house from which Turkish intelligence agents were said to be tracking the movements of PKK leaders.

Since then, things have worsened. PKK strikes into Turkey have become more frequent and spectacular, and the Turks have responded in kind with cross-border artillery barrages directed at guerilla staging areas. A rumor circulated earlier this summer that the Turkish military had poured into Iraqi Kurdistan in hot pursuit of Kurdish rebels. It was just a rumor, but one that didn’t seem too far off.

The sabre-rattling in Turkey is growing louder, and it’s unclear what the U.S. can do to calm things down. Bush apparently believes that deploying Special Forces troops to hunt down PKK leaders will help resolve the issue. This seems doubtful. But it could succeed in exhausting the patience and goodwill of Iraq’s Kurds. What then?

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