Turkey's Army loses luster over PKK attack
Amid daily fighting, including an clash Thursday that killed 10, unprecedented public criticism is mounting over an Oct. 3 attack.
Istanbul, Turkey — Long seen as the country's most trusted institution and as the ultimate defender of the state, the Turkish military is suddenly facing fire from an unlikely source: the public.
In the wake of an Oct. 3 attack by guerrillas from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on a border outpost, in which 17 Turkish soldiers were killed, the Army has been facing an unprecedented level of criticism, accused of negligence in the death of the soldiers and ineptitude in its ongoing fight against the PKK.
The military's image took a further blow when Turkish newspapers widely circulated a picture of Air Force Commander Gen. Aydogan Babaoglu on vacation playing golf the day after the bloody attack, seemingly oblivious to what had happened.
"Resign, My Pasa," was the front-page headline in the popular Vatan newspaper, using the Ottoman term for military generals. In a country where the military and its exploits are almost worshiped, this kind of open criticism of a general was a first.
This harsh criticism may be an indication of the continuing dilution of the Turkish military's formidable political power and an important step toward strengthening Turkey's struggling democratization process. It may also prod the government toward developing new, civilian-led strategies in dealing with the Kurdish problem.
"We can say that we are passing to a new phase in the Turkish civilian-military relationship," says Mehmet Ali Birand, a political analyst with the Kanal D television network. "The press used to be afraid of criticizing the military; it was very careful not to do that. Now it's just the contrary. We've never seen criticism like this before."
"It's a new era," he adds.
The Turkish military certainly appears to be standing on unfamiliar ground. For decades, the Army has been Turkey's dominant political force, seen as the ultimate protector of the country's political stability and of its secular system of government. Since 1960, Turkey's generals have pushed four governments out of office.
"The military has been a brake mechanism of sorts on Turkey's democratization process," Mr. Avtar continues. "Whenever there has been a democratic reform on the agenda, they have claimed it was going to impact the military's ability."
Reforms introduced in the past decade as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union have helped weaken the military's influence in politics. The changes have provided for more civilian involvement in security issues and for increased parliamentary oversight of the Army's budget.
This seems to have opened the door for the press to become increasingly bold in its criticism of the military, looking at charges of corruption and questioning its effectiveness.
One newspaper, Taraf, accused the Army of failing to act on intelligence that the Oct. 4 PKK attack was in the works. It ran on its front page classified aerial pictures taken by an unmanned military aircraft that seem to show the PKK's guerrillas preparing for their raid.
On Thursday four more soldiers died in a clash with Kurdish rebels, and one in a helicopter crash that the military attributed to a technical problem.
"The cliché of Turkey run by militaristic generals, which was the image of Turkey for a long time, is no longer valid," says Hugh Pope, a Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy and advocacy organization.
In one indication that the military's ability to dictate events might be waning, prior to Turkey's last elections, in the summer of 2007, the military released a statement on its website airing its displeasure with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Despite this intervention, which came to be known as the "e-coup," the liberal Islamic AKP went on to win reelection in a landslide.
Still, the generals don't appear to be backing off from the press's attacks. In a tense press conference on Wednesday, Ilker Basbug, Turkey's top general, said the military would take legal action against anyone leaking material to the press about the recent PKK attack.
"This is my last word: I invite everyone to be careful and to stand in the right position," said a visibly angry General Basbug, flanked by his top generals.
"The systematic attacks that had increased in recent days would do nothing but increase the strength, determination, and will of the Turkish Armed Forces," he continued.
But Aytar, of TESEV, says the military's threats may carry less weight than they used to. "The Army's efforts to counter all this criticism, saying it's just an effort to weaken the military, don't fly anymore. It doesn't strike a chord with the public," he says.
"I think the Turkish public is now seeing more that this meddling in domestic politics, even in the tiniest details, has been hurting the military's ability to do its important job in defending the border against PKK attacks."
Increased public scrutiny of the military and its record might push Turkey to find a new way of resolving the country's decades-old fight with the PKK.
"It's a good start on the PKK issue," says Lale Sariibrahimoglu, a military analyst based in Ankara. "It could force the political authorities to curb the military's political involvement in the Kurdish issue and allow for more political solutions to come up."
Adds Mr. Pope, of the International Crisis Group: "It creates an opening for new kinds of thinking. The whole narrative of an easy military solution for PKK is now discredited."