Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (IV): A conversation with a Turkish strategic corporal

A brief cross-cultural exchange shows why political philosophy matters and why our strategic alliances require a nuanced approach.



By Major Dale Trakas, U.S. Army
Best Defense strategic advisory group

From the series editor: Last week, we proposed that good strategy corresponds to the way people work, individually and in communities. The story below sheds light on the practical political philosophy of a conscripted Turkish soldier, an ally. Extrapolating his perspective across just a fraction of Turkey’s 70 million citizens, it becomes easier to see why political philosophy matters and why our strategic alliances require a nuanced approach if we hope to keep them. — Paul Edgar

Just before the coup attempt in July 2016, I was finishing my tour as an Olmsted Scholar in Istanbul. As my time got short, I made it a point to frequent my favorite bars in Taksim, sipping Efes, talking with friends, and feasting on durum until the late hours. On one of those nights, I had one of the most valuable conversations of my tour.

That night I met Levent, who was in Istanbul on 18-days of leave from Turkey’s eastern front, the term he used Turkey’s conflict against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It is a slow-burning, three-decades-old conflict that has inflicted about 35,000 casualties since the early 1980s. Stoked by the collapse of peace talks in July 2015, the Kurdish question is discussed regularly in the Turkish Parliament. The daily news is replete with the death statistics of national martyrs and Kurdish militants alike. Levent was in his early 20s; he was tall, fit, and had an unquenchable thirst for Efes. I saw clear-cut signs that he was a soldier and so I offered to buy him a beer.

Levent came from Eskisehir, a university town and provincial capital west of Ankara. He was the oldest of the family with one brother and sister. Levent was serving his mandatory enlistment, which, based on Levent’s social and economic status, amounts to two years.

I had many questions for Levent. Of course, I wanted to know his thoughts on the PKK, Syria, Iraq, and the Islamic State — a host of questions he probably didn’t want to talk about, but luckily the Efes helped.

First, Levent hates Kurds, Russians, and Americans, in that specific order. This was puzzling for me. Not the Kurd or Russian part, but the American part. As I was ordering our second round, my first reaction was to ask, “Why do you hate Americans?” But I hesitated and let him continue.

Levent briefly described operations against the PKK: search and destroy; scorched earth. Nothing fancy. No small teams trying to win popular support. No reconstruction or training teams, none of the things I have come to view as a natural extension of combat, especially in counterinsurgency conflicts. The displacement of Turkish citizens caused by these operations is often overlooked due to the even bigger conflict to the south in Syria and Iraq. But unfortunately it is somewhere near 350,000. Fighting the PKK is disrupting countless lives, Turkish and Kurdish alike, and Levent knew it. Levent’s job is tough. He’s literally fighting his own countrymen, something I believe that Americans can’t fully understand and haven’t understood since the Civil War. And like the conflict to the south of Turkey, this grinding war of attrition will continue for many, many more years.

The steady flow of beer continued and Levent continued. He hated his job, but he believed in what he was doing. He believed in his country and that what he was doing was right.

“Why do you hate Americans?” I finally asked.

“Because they are supporting the people I’m fighting.”

Americans are supporting Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria. The connection between Turkish Kurds and Iraqi and Syrian Kurds is, of course, strong and organic. The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds field the most successful and trustworthy forces on the ground against the Islamic State, which is one reason why we support them. But a second order effect is the professional and material development of Turkish Kurds, who kill Turkish soldiers and threaten Turkish stability. So our support is controversial in Turkey, to say the least.

“What do you think about the Islamic State?” I continued.

As he sipped his beer, he paused, hesitated, and gave me a dead stare. “Daha büyük problemlerimiz var. We have bigger problems.” His answer was simple but also elegant in its way. As I took a sip, I thought that our own policymakers might sometimes apply similarly elegant reasoning to prioritize our own national objectives.

For Levent, the most important conflict is not against the Islamic State but the PKK.  He believes the fight is necessary for the future of his country. I have a hard time grasping a fight of necessity, and what that might produce in terms of fighting power and national will. We haven’t fought out of pure necessity in a long time. Now, I understand that I was only talking to a junior soldier who does not necessarily represent the attitude of the entire Turkish military, government, or people. But it was an invaluable glimpse into the motivation and priorities of an ally.

Major Dale Trakas is a military police officer, currently stationed in Germany serving as the Operations Officer for the 709th Military Police Battalion. He deployed to Iraq from 2008 to 2009, commanded a company in the Old Guard, was an Olmsted Scholar in Istanbul, Turkey from 2013 to 2016, and recently graduated from the Mubarak al-Abdullah Joint Command and Staff College in Kuwait. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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