Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Turkey Poised to Invade Iraq

You have to feel sorry for David Petraeus. The commander of the multinational force in Iraq already has his hands full overseeing the "surge." Now he needs to deal with another, equally pressing problem. According to Iraqi officials, Turkey has mobilized some 140,000 soldiers along its common border with Iraq, in a maneuver that many see as a prelude to some sort of military confrontation between the two countries.

The reason has everything to do with Ankara's threat calculus. Today, Turkish officials and analysts alike are preoccupied with four interlocking strategic fronts. The first is the country's southeast, where Turkey's military continues its long-running struggle against the separatists of the radical Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The second lies across the border in northern Iraq, where officials say Kurdish rebels are operating with the knowledge -- and possibly even the tacit backing -- of Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The third and fourth are the sizeable Kurdish enclaves in Syria and Iran -- communities that officials in Ankara fear could similarly become outposts for anti-Turkish activity.

Washington has been slow to grasp the gravity of this threat, and even slower to address it. Until quite recently, the Bush administration brushed aside Turkish appeals for an expansion of the war on terror to include Kurdish terrorism, preferring to focus solely on the threat of al Qaeda and its affiliates. Worse, persistent talk in Washington of Iraqi "federalism" or "soft partition" sent shockwaves through officials in Ankara, who believe that the emergence of an independent "Kurdistan" could encourage neighboring Kurdish enclaves to seek self-determination, likely peeling away Turkish territory.

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Only last year, in a belated response to Ankara's urgings, did the administration appoint a special envoy for combating the PKK. The post, as well as the credentials of the envoy -- Gen. Joseph Ralston, a former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- were viewed in Turkey as a long-overdue sign of seriousness. But, by all accounts, bilateral progress has been slow and Mr. Ralston's efforts stymied by bureaucracy. The Beltway debate over Iraq, meanwhile, has heightened Turkish fears that they soon could be forced to face an expanded insurgent threat on their own.

All of which has spurred Ankara to action. In recent days, observers say, the Turkish government has launched a "great mobilization" that has positioned more than a quarter of its half-million-strong army in southeastern Turkey, awaiting orders for a cross-border operation. Such an incursion could be catastrophic. The quasi-autonomous government of "Iraqi Kurdistan" has made clear that it is ready and able to repulse a Turkish invasion. The U.S., meanwhile, has hinted that it would be obliged to defend and assist Iraqi forces in the event of such a conflict. Thus a Turkish raid could spark a war between a NATO member state and the U.S.-led Coalition.

Up until now, Ankara has appeared to understand the danger. Over the past several weeks, its military created a number of "temporary security zones" on the Iraqi border to interdict cross-border terrorist activities. But Turkish officials have made perfectly clear that this step is not a permanent solution to their security problem.

Fortunately, an opportunity to avert a crisis exists. Back in the spring of 2002, in an effort to assist Georgia in its fight against terrorism, the Pentagon launched the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) -- a bilateral military training initiative intended to enhance the former Soviet republic's counterterrorism, border security and intelligence capabilities. Practically, GTEP served as a useful capacity-building exercise, helping Tbilisi consolidate control over inhospitable terrain and expand the effectiveness of its forces. Politically, however, GTEP was much more; by increasing Georgia's competence to combat terrorism within its own borders, it eliminated a potential pretext for Russian imperialism. By 2004, the 20-month program had attained tangible results, simultaneously bolstering Tbilisi's anti-terror abilities and reducing the reasons for Russian intrusion.

If implemented quickly, the same model could reap benefits in northern Iraq. Despite its virtual political autonomy, the KRG is not an independent entity. It is beholden to the Iraqi central government, and to the Coalition, which now has greater authority pursuant to a May 30 security agreement signed by Mr. Barzani and U.S. commanders. Both now need to seize the initiative to create an institutional mechanism capable of defending Turkey from cross-border attack.

Of late, Baghdad has begun to show welcome signs of responsibility on this score. In early June, after months of dialogue with Turkish officials, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially signaled his intent to outlaw the activities of the PKK. Mr. Maliki and company will need to go beyond mere rhetoric, however, and immediately formulate a concrete plan for containing the activities of Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq. For its part, the Coalition must throw its weight behind a serious plan for northern Iraq, one that addresses Turkey's security concerns in a real and tangible way.

Anything less, and the Iraqi insurgency could become the least of Gen. Petraeus's problems.

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