General Paralysis

A series of blunders have cost the Turkish military its once dominant role in Ankara.


It’s not easy being a Turkish general these days. Hounded by a newly emboldened press. Under the constant threat of arrest for coup plotting. Dealing with a government that, unlike its predecessors, seems unafraid of the military.

The unexpected resignation on July 29 of Turkish Chief of Staff Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the army, navy and air force spoke to these accumulated frustrations. The resignations of the four top generals seemed to be prompted by the Aug. 1-Aug. 4, twice-yearly meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which determines military promotions. The military appeared particularly concerned about the fate of 14 generals currently in jail for allegedly plotting a coup who are due for a promotion, but whom Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to put out to pasture. In the end, a compromise was worked out between the government and Gen. Necdet Ozel, the new chief of staff, that allows the jailed generals to stay in uniform for another year, but without being promoted.

There is no denying the precipitous decline of the military’s influence in Turkish politics. In a country where the previous pattern had been that the top brass forced the politicians out of office by making their lives unbearably miserable, the opposite is true now. But the generals’ fall from grace did not happen overnight: The military’s latest defeat is the result of a series of blunders and a broader failure to adapt to the changing realities in modern-day Turkey over the past decade.

Since coming into office nearly nine years ago, Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have slowly whittled away the military’s power and increased civilian oversight over the previously unaccountable Turkish armed forces. It passed, for example, legislation that allowed for trying military personnel in civilian courts, while the powerful National Security Council, the military’s main instrument for political control, was brought under civilian control. Meanwhile, government-friendly newspapers — especially the liberal Taraf — seemed to delight in chronicling every one of the lumbering military’s stumbles and, more significantly, in exposing a series of plots allegedly cooked up by the Turkish armed forces to topple the government (or at least tarnish its name).

These plot accusations have, in turn, led to a series of high-profile court cases and the arrest of some 250 military personnel, among them several generals and admirals. In fact, only hours before Kosaner and his colleagues submitted their resignations, a Turkish court accepted yet another indictment against the military, this time accusing 22 officers and generals of working to create an online smear campaign against the Islamic-rooted AKP.

In his resignation statement, Kosaner, who wanted to promote his men despite their legal problems, sounded as if he realized he is powerless in countering the forces arrayed against him.

"One purpose of interrogation and long detentions has been to keep the TSK (Turkish Military Forces) on the agenda all the time and so give the impression that (the military) is a criminal organization, and it has not gone unnoticed that the (pro-government) media, which sees this as an opportunity, has published all kinds of false news, smears and accusations to turn our honored nation against the military forces," he said in his statement.

"Because this situation has not been prevented and addresses to the relevant institutions have been ignored, and because it is an obstacle to my protecting the legal rights of my personnel, it has become impossible for me to continue serving in the noble position I occupy."

The AKP and its allies have certainly worked hard to corner the military, especially with the court cases brought against it. But in many ways, Turkey’s generals have only themselves to blame for the mess they are in. While Turkey has been undergoing profound changes over the last decade, the military has failed to keep up with those developments, sticking to what it knows best — an outdated, inefficient and tone-deaf formula — which led to the steady erosion of public support.

The Turkish top brass’s self-inflicted wounds over the last several years range from the churlish, such as the refusal by some generals to shake the hand of President Abdullah Gul’s headscarved wife at a state reception, to the deeply damaging, such as the 2007 release of an online statement registering the military’s commitment to secularism and its opposition to Gul’s candidacy for president. Despite what came to be known as the "e-coup," not only did Gul become president, but the AKP successfully used the incident to portray itself as a victim of military meddling and increased its share of the vote in the parliamentary elections later that year.

Some of the Turkish military’s missteps, meanwhile, were the result of shocking negligence. In 2008, for example, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacked the Aktutun border outpost, near the Iraqi border, killing 17 Turkish soldiers. Taraf reported that the military failed to respond to images from aerial drones that showed PKK guerrillas preparing to attack, raising troubling questions about whether the military could have done more to prevent the loss of life. The armed forces’ reputation was weakened further by the release of photos showing the air force commander, whose services provided backup during the rescue attempt, on vacation playing golf the day of the bloody attack, seemingly oblivious to what had happened. "Resign, My Pasha," read the front-page headline in the popular Vatan newspaper, using the Ottoman term for military generals.

Even in terms of the various court cases against it, which have their strong skeptics, the military has miserably failed to keep up with the times. Take the most famous of these, the Balyoz, or "Sledgehammer" case, in which some 200 officers are accused of hatching a 2003 plot to topple the government. According to the indictment, the scheme included plans for the bombing of Istanbul mosques and the roundup of ideological opponents in sports stadiums. The military retorted that the prosecution’s evidence is not part of a coup plan but rather from a simulation of a domestic security crisis. Both sides may be right. Turkish law since 1960 has given the military the malleable imperative to "preserve and protect the Republic of Turkey," and for decades part of the Turkish military’s self-declared job description was to stand guard over the country’s secular system and be as prepared for domestic threats as it was for external ones. What some see as coup planning the Turkish generals saw as a natural exercise in threat preparedness. What they had disastrously failed to recognize was that this part of their job was no longer critical, but, in today’s Turkey, criminal.

The resignation of Kosaner and the other generals shows that the Turkish military is now a tool of state power, rather than the other way around. It’s a great victory for Erdogan and the AKP, but it also comes with a heavy burden. By removing what has been described as the greatest roadblock to Turkey’s further democratization, the AKP must now prove that it can deliver the democratic goods it has been promising. If it can’t, it may find itself forced to find another punching bag.

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