Turkey Trouble

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THE PLANK DECEMBER 26, 2006

Turkey Trouble

It's the holiday season, so perhaps we should look on the bright side. Even though most of Iraq is imploding, at least the Kurdish bits in the north are fairly stable. Right? Well, that's what I thought--even setting aside the whole Kirkuk issue, which still looks worrisome-until this story popped up on my Google News alerts:

Turkey and the United States are reportedly negotiating the possibility of a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, where the PKK has base camps. Two special coordinators appointed by the United States and Turkey have been continuing talks on the possibility of military action in northern Iraq.

A "cross-border operation"? Meaning what, exactly? Turkey, as I understand it, is getting sick of attacks on its soldiers by the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group with a foothold in northern Iraq. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that his patience for this sort of thing has "limits." Hawkish generals in the Turkish military have been exasperated that the United States has done squat to clamp down on PKK strongholds in northern Iraq-especially since the Bush administration officially considers the group a terrorist organization. (Although it's not like the Turkish Army is a bunch of angels, either.)

Now we get a "seasoned NATO military observer" telling The Economist: "It's no longer a matter of if [the Turks] invade but how America responds when they do." Uh. So if, say, the Iraqi Kurds decided to fight back against a Turkish encroachment, how exactly would the U.S. respond? Who would we support? At the moment, Condoleezza Rice is trying to ratchet down tensions on all sides, insisting that the PKK is being dealt with through a "trilateral cooperative mechanism," whatever that means. Erdogan, though, didn't seem overly optimistic about this in his interview with PBS.

Most onlookers, I take it, have assumed that Turkey wouldn't ever send troops into Kurdish Iraq for fear of jeopardizing its EU membership application. But these days EU membership seems increasingly precarious. So maybe they'll invade anyway. The country did deploy 250,000 troops to the border in April, but backed down after the U.S. promised to appoint a special envoy, former NATO commander Joseph Ralston, to deal with the problem. But apparently it never got dealt with. It seems Ralston may have been too busy lobbying the Turkish government on behalf of Lockheed Martin, who wanted to sell the country 30 new F-16s. That, at least, got accomplished.

So here we are. Another U.S. official told the Economist: "At this rate, we're not only going to lose Iraq but Turkey too." Nice! Even on the long, long list of Iraq-related cock-ups, this one looks like it may soon deserve special mention.

--Bradford Plumer

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