August 06, 2007

Turkey into Iraq

It was long predicted, and frankly, I have been extremely surprised by the reticence of the Turkish army. They have given the US plenty of time to start tackling the terrorist safe havens in Iraqi Kurdistan. Because, despite all the talk about Kurdistan being the one part of Iraq where things are going well, the Kurdish areas are full of terrorists.

Some background. The Kurdish areas of Iraq have long been staging areas for the PKK, a Kurdish "rebel" organization that mainly fights in Turkey. I am sympathetic to their basic cause, as Kurds have been horribly mistreated by Turkey (and Iraq, and Iran), but they have simply committed too many terrorist acts. They are widely regarded as a terrorist organization, including by the US.

Within Iraq, the Kurdish areas have been ruled by the PUK and the KDP. Those are authoritarian, self-serving parties that have fought each other (and any other comers) for decades to gain control over areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. While their armed forces (peshmerga) generally fought as disciplined guerilla forces, they did resort to kidnapping and other dubious tactics at some points. The KDP worked close enough with the PKK to have its bases in Iraq attacked by Turkey.

In the Iran-Iraq war, both Kurdish forces resorted to complicated and shifting alliances with either side in order to survive, while trying to attack each other at the same time. Towards the end they formed a unified front against Saddam, and it wasn't until the Iran-Iraq war ended that Iraqi forces were able to defeat them. Using the full force of the army, and using chemical weapons honed in the war with Iran, Saddam nearly destroyed the peshmerga as a regular fighting force. The peshmerga reorganised in response, adopting insurgent tactics still being used in Iraq: smaller, independently operating forces targeting infrastructure and ambushing convoys. They further rebuilt under an agreement struck with Saddam during the Gulf war, and were particularly strengthened by defectors from the Iraqi army. They attacked Kirkuk with a force of 100,000 during the uprising following the Gulf War and took it in two days. Unfortunately most of the elite units of Saddam's army escaped the massacre in Kuwait, and when they turned their focus to Kurdistan (after subduing the Shi'a rebellion), they quickly retook the big cities in the plains, and drove the peshmerga into the mountains again. About 1.5 million Kurds fled to refugee camps in Turkey and Iran to escape Saddam's wrath. Again the peshmerga barely survived. The PUK and KDP forces tried to form a unified army, but that wasn't very successful. They actually cooperated in an attack on the PKK, with the help of the Turkish army, in 1992. But they quickly fell out and several rogue commanders (commanding forces as large as 20,000) starting acting as more or less independent warlords. This culminated in the Kurdish civil war (1995-1998). In this civil war, the PUK allied with Syria and Iran, while the KDP was supported by the Iraqi government. Strange bedfellows. The situation got even more complex when an Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist group (Ansar-al-Islam) started operating in PUK-held area. This group was mainly made up by fighters escaping Afghanistan after the US attack there, and it succeeded in unifying the KDP and PUK again. The US attack on Iraq brought the peshmerga the assistance it needed to defeat Ansar-al-Islam.

The peshmerga played an strong role in the defeat of Saddam in 2003. Having essentially liberated themselves, American forces have trodden very lightly in the Kurdish areas. In return, the Kurdish areas have continued to self-police and to cooperate in the fight against Sunni and Shiite insurgents. With the local economy booming (and the result of civil war all too clearly on display in the rest of Iraq, just in case the Kurds should forget their recent past), the iron hold that the PUK and KDP have on the region is not causing much discontent. Indeed, peace and prosperity is giving the Kurds hope that their rotten luck is about to change.

More info here. The crucial point is that the peshmerga forces are extremely nationalistic, very experienced guerilla fighters with no qualms about changing alliances in order to achieve the goal of an independent Kurdistan. The peshmerga captured a large amount of military hardware in the aftermath of the war, leaving them better equipped than at any time in recent history. They continue to embody Kurdish nationalism, newly invigorated by the clear progress they are making, and the idea that they would be disbanded or fully absorbed into an Iraqi army is absurd.

However, the problem for Turkey is that Iraqi Kurdistan is rife with thousands of PKK fighters, and that the PUK and KDP forces have not gone after them. American forces haven't either, because the last thing they need is another large, battle-hardened terrorist organisation to join the insurgency, let alone run the risk that significant fractions of the KDP and PUK would join the fight. The US forces don't even want to take the risk that the peshmerga would stop cooperating with them: they are essential to the US military throughout Iraq, not just as reliable and very capable allies, but also as translators. So instead, the US has tried to pressure the PUK and KDP to attack the PKK. There are estimated to be around 100,000 peshmerga right now, split between PUK and KDP forces. This would seem to be no match to the 3,000 estimated PKK fighters in the Kurdish area. But I believe it is highly unlikely that this fight would ever happen. After all, the three organisations share a common view of a unified Kurdistan that would (far) exceed its current borders. I also think it would be naive to think that the peshmerga forces didn't have a significant number of PKK fighters amongst them.

So where does that leave the situation? Iraqi Kurdistan is a poisoned oyster. It is peaceful and prosperous, but it has strong territorial aspirations, both within Iraq and outside it. It is unlikely to turn on the PKK forces within it, as it shares their ideology and many of their methods (note that many in Iraqi Kurdistan do not see the PKK as terrorists, but freedom fighters). Festering, I guess is what I would call the situation. Not all that unlike the situation Afghanistan was in before the US attack. Turkey may not have a choice but to go after terrorists in Iraq, since the US is unable to. But it will be a bloody mess.

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