Turkey’s recent limited cross-border operations into northern Iraq present an opportunity to repair damaged relations between two NATO allies. Over the past few weeks, American intelligence agencies have been providing information on the location of camps and hideouts of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization, inside Iraq along the mountainous Turkish border.
This intelligence information has allowed precise airstrikes and commando operations by Turkish forces against the PKK fighters and helped preclude the possibility of a much larger Turkish incursion into northern Iraq; a move that could threaten the relative peace and prosperity of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.
For its part, Iraq has made the required vocal oral objections to the limited operations, but all sides realize that the Turks have to do something to staunch the increase in PKK operations against Turkish troops and government facilities. The Turkish people had become frustrated with the PKK’s use of safe havens in Iraq, theoretically under the occupation or control of its NATO ally, the United States. To quell rising domestic dissatisfaction with the seeming unwillingness or lack of capability to stop the attacks, the Turkish parliament authorized the Turkish military, a capable force, to mount an incursion into northern Iraq to root out the terrorists.
A full-scale Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq is not in the interests of the Turks, the Americans or the Iraqis. Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained since 2003, when Turkey refused to allow the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division to transit Turkish territory to enter northern Iraq as part of the American invasion force. The ability to attack from the north in coordination with the attacks from the south would have been much more effective and may have prevented the birth of the insurgency in what became known as the Sunni triangle.
Turkey’s refusal to allow passage came only after the heavy mechanized division was spread out over the highways in southern Turkey, requiring the United States to move the division’s troops and equipment back to ports, re-contract adequate shipping, move the division all the way to the Persian Gulf, offload in Kuwait and move overland to the fight in Iraq. The delay prevented American combat forces from reaching the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad, the area that spawned the Sunni insurgency and became a home to the al-Qaida in Iraq. Many American officers did not regard these as the actions of an ally.
Since 2003, there has been a slow thaw in relations between the two allies. The alliance goes back over half a century when Turkey joined NATO in 1952. As the leaders of the two countries watch events in Russia and Central Asia, both realize the importance to overcome the disagreement of four years ago. The American provision of intelligence is a good step in that direction.
Why does Turkey need American intelligence? The Turks are in the area and have long experience fighting the PKK, so what advantage does the United States have to offer? Turkey can conduct its own aerial reconnaissance using its fighter aircraft, but this is usually detectable and requires the overflight of sovereign Iraqi territory (and coordination with American forces). American surveillance platforms – electro-optical imagery satellites, high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and small unmanned aerial vehicles have the advantage of being virtually undetectable from the ground.
The cooperation between the Turks and American intelligence is important for another significant reason. We are assisting the Turks in their war against a terrorist group, much like we are supporting the Pakistani government in its efforts against the Taliban and al-Qaida. If we believe in the “global” war on terrorism, the support to Turkey is appropriate.