Turkey and the Kurds

The US has to decide what course to take regarding Turkey as the recent suicide attacks illustrate the growing instability of the country.  The main issue facing Turkey is how to handle the Kurds, both the ethnic minority inside Turkey, and their Kurdish brethren in Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Turkey has for years declared the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group, and the US and NATO have also listed it as a terrorist group.  Currently, however, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are America’s best allies in fighting ISIS.  Can the US support the Kurds in those countries while acquiescing in Turkey’s opposition to them in Turkey, and probably across the border, too?  The Turkish air force has been suspected of striking the Kurds while it was supposedly supporting US efforts against ISIS in Syria.

If it were not for Turkey, the US could support the creation of a greater Kurdistan consisting of the Kurdish parts of Syria and Iraq.  We would probably be happy if the Kurds tried to annex part of Iran, if we could avoid getting involved.  However, we are involved in Turkey, which is a NATO member.  Turkey would not be happy giving up a significant amount of its territory to a greater Kurdistan.

Adding to the problem for the US is the decline of the Turkish government.  It has become more religious, and President Erdogan has become more authoritarian, producing unhappiness among the Turkish people.  His party no longer holds a political majority, and the country is facing new elections as he tries to get a majority.  Thus, Turkey faces internal instability and destabilizing pressure from outside.  The US cannot easily abandon Turkey, a longtime NATO ally, especially when we need Turkey’s support in the battle against ISIS just across the border.

The US could  lean heavily on the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to reign in their brothers in Turkey.  We could offer more and more military support, if they keep the Kurds in Turkey from making trouble.  We could even wink and imply that if they behave today, we might look the other way if they try to form a greater Kurdistan later.  Meanwhile, we should work with the Turkish government to calm the situation there, to tone down its campaign against the Turkish Kurds.  But Erdogan probably sees the Kurds as the greatest threat to his power, and the recent suicide bombings, with whispers of Turkish government complicity, illustrate the problems with that course of action.

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Kunduz Hospital Bombing

The shelling or bombing of the Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, reminds me of my time in an artillery battery in Vietnam.  In general we only fired at targets that had been precleared by someone in our chain of command, or we fired for forward observers who were engaged with the enemy.  In a few cases, working with our quad-50 machine gun crew, we would have to seek clearance to fire at someone who we thought was sneaking around our perimeter, just in case it was a South Vietnamese unit wandering around.

We had a number of no-fire areas marked on our maps and charts, indicating the locations of towns and bases.  I don’t think we ever fired into one of these no-fire zones.  It would have required all kinds of special clearances.

From the discussion it sounds as if the question in Kunduz is whether the Afghan or US forces were taking fire from the hospital.  Even if they were taking fire from the hospital, would that warrant calling in an air strike on it?  In Vietnam there was supposedly a pretty rigorous process for clearing a fire mission on a target that was not engaged in actual combat.  American liaison officers checked with Vietnamese contacts about whether there were any civilians or friendly troops in the area.

The situation would have been complicated in Kunduz because the city had been friendly until the Taliban takeover.  The entire city would have been a no-fire area, and there would have been to reason to fire into it.  With the Taliban attack, the whole city would still be considered a no-fire area because there would be civilians everywhere.  However, if friendly troops were taking heavy fire, there would have been a debate about whether it was necessary to accept “collateral damage” in order to neutralize the enemy.  It would seem that a decision of that nature should have been made pretty high up.

Doctors without Borders claims that no one was firing from the hospital.  In that case, there seems no justification for attacking it.  However, if they are wrong and there was firing, then maybe there was justification, but Doctors without Borders legitimately would want to know who decided that they were expendable.  I guess that is what the military review will try to determine.  I am inclined to give our troops the benefit of the doubt in the fog of war, but screw-up do happen.

In Vietnam one night someone came up on our radio channel asking if we were firing at certain coordinates.  We were not, but we could hear him asking other batteries if they were firing there.  Finally one battery answered and said that they had just finished a “battery three-by-three” on that target.  The stranger on the net said that it was a small town, which was now destroyed.  A “battery three-by-three” means that an entire artillery battery, probably four large or six small guns, fired nine volleys in the shape of a box around the target.  Obviously something went wrong in the clearance process for that fire mission.

Reports of Attempt to Sell Radioactive Materials to Terrorists

The reports that someone in Moldova was going to see radioactive material to terrorists to make a dirty bomb is not to alarming.  Offers such as this happen frequently in the criminal underworld.  Radioactive materials, such as cesium are fairly available in small quantities from sources such as old hospital radiation therapy machines.  In Brazil about 30 years ago, such a machine was broken open in a junkyard by curious workers who ended up polluting and poisoning a good part of the city of Goiania.  When I was in Poland, there were frequent rumors of people with radioactive materials in Ukraine or Moldova who were willing to sell. In most of these cases the sellers had very little material, and probably had access to little more, usually just mishandled medical or scientific samples.

Here are some examples of earlier cases.

2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/30/world/europe/30moldova.html

2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/world/europe/moldova-3-sentenced-in-nuclear-case.html

2015: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/10/07/world/europe/ap-eu-europe-nuclear-smugglers-abridged.html