Turkish General Edip Baser: America Must Fight PKK

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Turkey. For more, click here.

Istanbul - Retired four-star Turkish General Edip Baser left his joint post as Special Envoy for Counterterrorism in May 2007, frustrated with America for professional reasons: he says the United States "tied Turkey's hands," leaving it more exposed to PKK terrorism. But now this frustration has turned personal.

His twenty-six-year-old son, Sukru, is about to enter Turkey's mandatory fifteen months of military service. Sukru wants to join Turkey's Special Forces in the southeast to help them fight the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

General Baser knows the danger his son would face; he used to command Turkey's military across all of Turkey's southern border, and says Sukru and his fellow soldiers deserve all the help they can get. He wants America to step up, but after his experience as Special Envoy, he isn't hopeful.

Baser has become a visible critic of America's role combating the PKK. Though he worked well with his American counterpart, General Joseph Ralston, Baser left his post as Special Envoy abruptly after criticizing U.S. involvement in an interview with a Turkish paper. (He says the reasons for his leaving the post are private; newspapers here reported his resignation was due to statements he made about the ruling party, AKP). Regardless, his retirement made big news here, and brought the issue of U.S. support for Turkey to the fore yet again. A number of Baser's military colleagues, who have been strong proponents of the U.S. over the years, have begun publicly voicing their disenchantment with recent actions..

Baser grew up on the Turkish-Syrian border in the town of Nizip. He was so entranced by the national air force – their bright blue uniforms and "their dignity" – that he elected to enter a military high school, which he says was "like a regular one except with more discipline." There he fell in love with World War II stories and the heroism of fighters like the Americans.

Baser met his first U.S. soldier in South Korea in 1965. After flying in a U.S. C-141 through Alaska, he ended up stationed on the border of Korea's Demilitarized Zone. "Americans were so well-trained, well-educated and disciplined," he remembers. "I was proud to be serving there. In Kuluri we lost 470 soldiers just to protect American soldiers drawing back from a Chinese attack. This is what friendship is."

Baser is a patriot with a collection of Ataturk portraits in his office, and an extensive knowledge of Turkey’s foreign military policies over the years. He interprets it all through a strong military lens, and his loyalty to Turkey is unwavering. So it is with particular emotion that he recounts, in rapid succession, the slights that Turkey has “suffered from our American friends."

He remembers his doubts stirring when the U.S. sacrificed Turkish security during the Cuban Missile Crisis by "bargaining away" Turkey's deterrent missiles. Then he says America used its arms trade to hold Turkey back in Cyprus when the GreekEOKA attacked. Turkey intervened anyway and the U.S. imposed the 1974 arms embargo. And in the 1990s, Baser claims the U.S. was too slow to intervene in Kosovo. Baser didn't get caught up on any one event over the years, he says, but as he reflects on his career now, he is "heartbroken."

The Second Iraq War brought it all to a head. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, they "took responsibility for the north, too." But PKK picked up in 2004. As a former military commander of the southern border of Turkey, Baser wanted men on the ground, patrolling the rugged hills. When neither U.S. nor northern Iraqi forces could control the area, "We were ready to do it,” Baser says. “But America told us to keep out." And so sentiment toward the U.S. soured “with each new PKK attack,” Baser says - his own views included.

When the Turkish Prime Minister asked Baser to serve as Special Envoy to Counterterrorism, working directly with General Ralston to coordinate actions against the PKK, Baser saw it as a chance for collaboration that could bring real results. He accepted despite fierce criticism from all sides.

But nine months later, he says no progress had occurred. "Washington said all the right things, [but] they did nothing. America only cares about its own terrorists."

But why would the U.S. support a relatively small band of Kurdish rebels over a whole state, I ask?

He doesn't know, he says, but he has his speculations. "The United States is a superpower with long-term plans for Iraq and for the Middle East. People's minds - and my mind - are so mixed up here in Turkey about U.S. intentions here."

"Ms. Rice said once that some of these boundaries will change in the Middle East. What did she mean by that? I have so many questions about the intentions of the United States." He says that all he knows right now is: "This is not an even friendship."

TurkeyAmar Bakshi