by Gordon Taylor | 10/08/2008 12:55:00 AM
It's Turkish, and it is the most direct and forceful headline you will ever see. "End this Goddamn War," it says. It appeared today (10/5/08) in the Istanbul daily "Taraf," and the accompanying text was written by one of Turkey's most courageous liberal editors, Ahmet Altan. The Turkish Army, with all its vaunted prowess and NATO weapons, has suffered a major catastrophe this weekend in the mountains of Kurdistan. The PKK rebels are claiming 65 Turkish soldiers killed, including several officers, with a loss of 9 of their own fighters. The attack, they say, was recorded on video. The Army is claiming otherwise: 15 soldiers lost, 23 PKK killed. Anyway you look at it, it's a heavy toll. The government and press of Turkey are in an uproar, and access to pro-Kurdish websites has been blocked.

As I've said before, a rational government could end this war by negotiation in a month.

Read all about it at Rasti, the website of pro-PKK blogger Mizgin Yilmaz.

P.S. Unlike the CNN we get here, CNN International occasionally has stories that are of real interest. Recently one of their correspondents posted a story about the women fighters of the PKK. For a really depressing insight into the Turkish nationalist mind at work, check out the Comments.

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Blogger mark on 10/06/2008 10:02 PM:

Hi Gordon,

I understand the extreme sensitivity of Turkish political reaction re: Turkish Kurdistan but could you elucidate on why such relatively small losses have triggered so large an uproar given Turkey's frequent threats to invade Iraqi Kurdistan ( which would add 100,000 Peshmerga as enemies along with the PKK and straining relations with the US and NATO). Is the much vaunted Turkish Army a paper tiger ? Or is the PKK less despised by Turks than in the past when Ocalan was running it ?


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 10/07/2008 2:39 AM:

Hi Mark,

First of all, the Turks have already invaded Iraqi Kurdistan many times, in the 1990s and after, and they have nothing to show for it. Their latest attempt was in February of this year, when they claimed a great victory but in fact were quite humiliated by opposing PKK forces. At one point in the 1990s even Barzani's peshmergas went up against the PKK, in collusion with the Turks, but they got nowhere. Believe me, the war is futile and unwinnable, and the Turks' threats to invade Iraqi Kurdistan are meaningless.

Second, these casualty figures are not "relatively small," especially since Turkish officials have been saying for a long time that the PKK is "strained to the breaking point," and is "on the verge of collapse." Fifteen is a lot of soldiers to lose when you've been hearing this kind of nonsense. Also, the number fifteen is probably a lie. The PKK claimed 65 killed, but they can't verify that either. The point is, it was a powerful attack conducted by a group that the Turkish Army is always on the verge of defeating. If you read the PKK website, you would see that they regularly are graduating new classes of recruits from their training academy in the mountains. Read my past posts here or at for more info.

Third, and this relates to #1 above, you have to know which part of Iraqi Kurdistan you are talking about. Most Turkish forays have been into the mountains near the town of Cukurca, close to the Iranian border. Conventional equipment--tanks, trucks, jeeps--is useless in this terrain. Further west, the main entrance from Turkey to Iraq is at the Habur border crossing, where the Habur river joins the Tigris. Yes, tanks could cross the bridge there, but the Iraqi Kurds would almost certainly resist and dynamite the bridge. And invading there would do NOTHING to harm the PKK, who hold the ground far away from there, in the mountains to the east.

Fourth, the latest attack is causing an uproar because this particular army outpost, Bezele, has already been attacked, with devastating results, in May of this year. For more on this, you really should read Mizgin's post ( and click on the link to the video of the May attack. The outpost is very poorly situated, and the Turkish boys who were killed there were in effect sacrificed to incompetence. The video does more than anything to show what the PKK looks like: the "boys and girls" marching together through the mountains, the pack mules they use, the weapons they carry, the awesome terrain, and finally the attack on Bezele, deep in its valley.

Next, is the vaunted Turkish Army a "paper tiger"? Well, I'm no military expert, but you have to remember that the vast majority of this huge force is composed of draftees serving their required 15 months of national service. I repeat: FIFTEEN MONTHS. How much desire and experience are you likely to find in draftees that are only in there for 15 months? Remember, these are not the "Turks" of popular caricature, storming the gates of Vienna with daggers in their teeth. They are ordinary kids (and many, remember, are Kurds!) who want to get back to their jobs, education, wives, etc. Some, of course, are far-right fascist jingoists, but those guys are always around.

Last, of course the PKK is bitterly despised by a lot of Turks, especially among the common folk whose sons bear the lion's share of the burden. (No offspring of politicians or army generals has yet been harmed--or even served!--in this dirty war.) Among Turkey's Kurds, however, the PKK gets a lot of respect and support. When PKK fighters die in battle, their bodies are collected by the Turkish Army and returned to their parents. (Sometimes, as recently happened with a boy and a girl, after having been dismembered by the Turks.) It is quite common to see photographs posted online of the burials of these "martyrs," and always the bodies are accompanied to their graves by thousands of people. As for Ocalan, he is a figurehead, safely ensconced in his jail cell and occasionally visited by his lawyers. He was never a real military commander anyway.

I hope this makes some kind of sense. Honestly, and I say this in all sincerity, I don't blame anyone who throws his hands in the air and walks away from this subject.


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/08/2008 12:58 PM:

Dear Gordon,
Firstly, thank you for your outstanding "citizen journalism", both here at Progressive Historians and at your own blog.

I was wondering what you thought about this idea: how about you fill the post once held by that criminal Joseph Ralston (I expect you'd likely do something more productive than sell F-16 fighters to Turkey). You would serve under President Obama as the new "Special Envoy For Countering the PKK".
You are undoubtedly the only person who both knows what is really going on and why (unlike those foreign policy hacks e.g. at the Jamestown Foundation), and hence the only person who really can counter the PKK, albeit in a a very positive way.

In our dreams, I suppose.
Thanks again,
Oswald Veblen


Blogger mark on 10/08/2008 11:28 PM:

Hi Gordon,

I want to thank you for your extended reply. Turkish issues are not my forte and your comments were informative as well as enlightening.

Knowing something about military affairs as I do, I'm shoked that Ankara is even attempting to fight a "dirty war" of uncertain popular support with short term conscripts. A task akin to trying to bail out the sea.

COIN can only be done by highly motivated, highly trained professionals with the political running room to make commonsense concessions to the aggreieved population while using intel to game out the operational cadre and leadership core of the insurgency.

Conscript armies can only win a "dirty war", which is not the same thing as COIN, by opting for democidal tactics against the population essentially at random. On a large enough scale, guerilla support networks will get shredded along with an enormous number of civilians. A bloody business.

While Guatemala or Colombia could get away with that, Turkey cannot engage in moral horrors with impunity. Half-measures create international outrage at atrocities while being militarily useless


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 10/09/2008 2:35 AM:

I want to thank Mark and "anon" for the kind remarks.

"Anonymous", you are, in fact, too kind: what an awful prospect, a job like that!

Mark, indeed you must be a military guy because almost immediately I got lost in the jargon. After thinking about it, I decided that COIN must mean counter-insurgency, right? I appreciate hearing your remarks about COIN and "dirty" wars, and using professionals with enough wiggle room to make "commonsense concessions to the aggrieved population". That's just the problem. In current parlance, Turks don't "do" wiggle room. "Commonsense concessions" would be great, but that would mean that Turks would not be Turks. It would mean compromise and forgiveness.

Long ago, in another job in another life, I was talking once with a foreign student advisor at Michigan State in East Lansing. We were talking about my short stint as an English teacher in Turkey, and he said he had a lot of experience with Turkish students at MSU. He said, "I'm sure you can guess the most outstanding character trait I found among them." I confessed that I did not. He said, "They're stubborn. They're the stubbornest people I've ever met."

And it's true. If you know about military affairs, and a little about Turkish military history, you'll recognize this. What in modern times has gained them the most fame? Defensive actions. Sieges. Kars and Erzurum in 1829. Kars again, most famously, with Gen. Fenwick Williams ("Williams Pasha") in the eastern front of the Crimean War, 1856. Plevna, in Bulgaria under Osman Pasha, in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War. Gallipoli--I guess we all know about that one. And, against the Greek Army, the Battle of the Sakarya, also under Mustafa Kemal, in 1921.

You get the point. And keep in mind, these "Turkish" troops that fought in these battles also contained a lot of Kurds. Essentially they were Anatolians, these Ottoman soldiers, and the Kurds are Anatolians to the core.

Thanks again for writing.


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 10/09/2008 2:54 AM:


To Mark: Please take note that Turkey has engaged in plenty of morally outrageous dirty warfare in the Southeast (Turkish Kurdistan). Villages have been emptied, mines sown, right-wing murder squads unleashed, people "disappeared," torture committed with impunity, beatings administered: in fact, every sort of outrage has been committed by the Turkish government and its security forces since the outbreak of the PKK war. People have been jailed again and again for speaking out against the government, newspapers, TV stations, and websites are regularly closed when they offend. (You can't even get YouTube in Turkey, for example.) And yes, they've gotten away with it again and again. The USA scarcely says a word, probably because a)we sell the pashas a lot of military toys, and b) the Pentagon wants to keep using Incirlik Air Base.


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/09/2008 6:47 PM:

To Mark and to all all interested readers with similar questions:
Turkey, thanks to its NATO membership, has been able to squash any mention of their military's human rights abuses in the southeast these last twenty years, which included a--true to the name--scorched earth campaign.
Indeed, a very interesting article titled, "Images of war: using satellite images for human rights monitoring in Turkish Kurdistan", uses as a case study the Turkish army's burning forests, fields and villages as a strategy in the conflict against the PKK.
The authors of this article are Dutch academics, and their work is definitely overlooked (atleast by most of the bloggers I read).
I recommend in particular one of the authors, Joost Jongerden,(check his website at for his extensive published academic work on some of these subjects.

Below are selections from the paper's introduction and conclusion.
"In the period 1984–1993 the PKK successfully applied the principles of prolonged guerrilla warfare. The strategy involved widespread and continuous attacks on the Turkish Armed Forces by guerrilla cells. These attacks were intended to push the armed forces into taking up defensive positions in larger settlements and protecting communication and defence lines (a tactical withdrawal that in effect opened up the countryside for the PKK). The guerrilla force then built up its strength in the countryside, created liberated areas, established an administration and deployed conventional warfare tactics for its defence. As its strength increased, the PKK intended to expand the liberated areas, call for a popular uprising and launch largescale attacks on Turkish positions."
"Occasional army sweeps sought to destroy the guerrilla movement, but these proved ineffective. Each time, as the troops fell into position, the guerrillas slipped away, returning only after the army sweep had ended. In 1991, the Turkish Armed Forces announced a reorganization of its war against the PKK, based on what was called ‘the field domination doctrine’. This comprised 1) the application of the principles of a ‘war of movement’ by the military, and 2) a strategy of ‘environment-contraction and deprivation’ ( Jongerden, 2007, pp. 66–71)."
"from 1992 onwards, civil society and human rights organizations claimed—on the basis of witness accounts—that the Turkish army had systematically burned and evacuated villages, and destroyed rural livelihoods (fields and forests). These accounts received little attention, however, in part because they were so fragmented and could not be cross-checked, as the military sealed off areas in which it was operating. Even high-level politicians were refused access to areas where the Turkish army carried out resettlement operations Jongerden, 2007, p. 93). In view of these serious limitations to access on the ground, the potential of remote sensing(i.e. satellite imagery) immediately becomes clear."

"The combined data(i.e. satellite data and eye-witness descriptions of times and dates) supports the thesis that when the Turkish Armed Forces began to burn forests it reflected the logic of a new strategy of armed conflict. This supports the conclusion that suspected support for the PKK may have been the reason for village evacuations between 1984 and 1991, and that following the implementation of the ‘field domination doctrine’ in 1993 the evacuation and destruction of villages became a constituent element of counter-insurgency. The fact that village destruction went hand in hand with burning showed the military’s principal aim: to destroy the so-called ‘environment of insurgency’ and prevent a return to it. The displacement of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Kurds should be viewed not as collateral damage from a war of state forces against insurgents, but as one of its very objectives."

Best to you Gordon, and all Progressive Historians,
I was only half-joking about that post in the Obama admin. ;)
Oswald Veblen


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 10/09/2008 10:21 PM:

Thanks to Mr. "Anonymous" for the link and the summary. Truly, there is a MOUNTAIN of evidence about all these topics that is easily available online. There were many reports this summer in Kurdish papers about deliberate burning of forests by the Turkish Army. It goes on and on.


Blogger Hevallo on 10/13/2008 8:10 AM:

Here is just one large town that was burnt to the ground. Thousands of others suffered the same fate creating millions of Kurdish refugees.

I took these pictures myself.