Turkey's Deal With the Devil

For decades, Turks have vilified Abdullah Ocalan as a terrorist. But he may be the only man who can bring an end to their country's bloody conflict with the Kurds.

On the morning of Jan. 3, Kurdish politicians Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Turk boarded a ferry bound for Imrali, a prison island on the Marmara Sea, about 40 miles south of Istanbul. Waiting for them inside the maximum-security jail was Turkey's public enemy No. 1: the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

The unprecedented meeting has revived hopes that a negotiated solution to Turkey's bloody, protracted conflict with the PKK may be within reach. Other signs also point to a concerted mediation effort: Ata and Turk's visit was preceded by contacts between the PKK leader and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence agency. Then on Jan. 8, the Turkish daily Radikal broke the news that Ocalan and Turkish officials had agreed to a road map that foresaw gradual PKK disarmament in exchange for allowing education in the Kurdish language, strengthened local administration in areas inhabited by Kurds, and a new, ethnically neutral definition of citizenship. According to the daily Yeni Safak, Ocalan also offered to call on the PKK's Syrian offshoot to suspend contacts with the regime in Damascus and join ranks with the anti-Assad rebels.

Turks and Kurds may be forgiven for not celebrating just yet. After 30 years and more than 40,000 casualties, the conflict has defied numerous attempts to silence the guns of war. A highly touted but badly mismanaged "Kurdish opening" launched by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2009 ended up in tatters after a nationalist backlash. In 2011, a series of secret talks with rebel leaders, including Ocalan, collapsed amid renewed PKK attacks. In the meantime, a wave of arrests of thousands of Kurdish politicians, academics, journalists, and activists -- moderates and radicals alike -- has convinced many Kurds that the government has no interest in a negotiated solution.

The decision to place Ocalan at the heart of the new talks reflects not only the failure of previous policies but also something that few politicians in Turkey have hitherto dared to acknowledge -- that more than a decade into his life sentence, the PKK's veteran leader continues to hold the key to peace. A few years ago, publicly engaging with Ocalan, a man many Turks view as the devil incarnate, would have exposed the government to charges of treason. Today, in one judges by the lack of public outcry, it is simply seen as the option that has the best chance of working. Tellingly, even the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which seldom misses a chance to bash Erdogan, has given his government the benefit of the doubt.

There may simply be no way of sidestepping Ocalan. Since 1984, when he and the PKK first took up arms against the Turkish state, Ocalan has consolidated his status as the Kurds' national icon. Just as shrewd and charismatic as he is ruthless and dictatorial, Apo, as he is known, has never lost his grip on the Kurdish movement. To this day, even from his remote island prison, he remains capable of firing up and cooling passions at will. Three years ago, when Ocalan complained through his lawyers that he was feeling cramped in his new prison cell, protests erupted in Kurdish cities across the country. In November 2012, Ocalan once again proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he urged several hundred Kurdish prisoners, some of them close to death after 68 days without food, to suspend their hunger strike. All complied in the blink of an eye.

The hunger strike intervention was a game-changer, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran journalist and the author of a 2011 report on the PKK. By showing Ocalan's leverage with militant Kurds, he says, "it gave an opportunity to those in government who sought a negotiated solution and who wanted Ocalan to play a central role in this framework."

A number of other factors may have played into the renewed push for peace. While recent military offensives against rebel bases in Turkey's southeast and in the mountains of northern Iraq may have weakened the PKK, they have failed to break the group's back. In the meantime, the fallout from neighboring Syria, where the PKK's local affiliate has emerged as the most powerful actor in areas populated by Kurds, has complicated things even further. Whether or not it has received direct aid from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as the Turks have alleged, the PKK has certainly been heartened by developments across the border, stepping up attacks against Turkish targets and, in the process, making 2012 the bloodiest year on record since Ocalan's capture.

Then there's the electoral calendar. Next year, Turks will head to the polls in local and presidential elections. As always, Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will vie for a chunk of the Kurdish vote. Its politicians -- including Erdogan, who is likely to make a bid for the presidency -- will want to point to some signs of progress toward meeting these voters' grievances. "The unresolved Kurdish issue, with the PKK in a position of escalating its violence, it's not a very conducive climate to have elections," says Candar.

Of course, there is no shortage of spoilers who could attempt to sabotage the talks before they get off the ground. One potential culprit is a group of hawks within the army, police, and judiciary that last flexed its muscles in February 2012, when a prosecutor subpoenaed Fidan on suspicion that the intelligence chief had exceeded his authority during the secret talks with the PKK. A hard-line faction within the PKK may also be keen to destroy any attempt at peace. On Jan. 7, a group of PKK members attacked a gendarmerie outpost in Turkey's southeast, killing a Turkish soldier. Two days later, in what appeared to be a direct provocation, unknown assailants shot dead PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz and two other women in Paris.

Candar is confident that PKK fighters will abide by whatever deal Ocalan hammers out with the government. "I don't buy the argument that there is Ocalan and there's also the PKK, that it is a two-headed organization," he said. "Whatever Ocalan decides to be done will be implemented by the organization."

Yildiray Ogur, the journalist who broke the news of Ata and Turk's visit to Imrali, agrees. "If Ocalan says that the military operations are ended and we've passed into the political arena, the PKK will accept this," he says. "Ocalan is a demigod for the PKK."

At some point, however, Ocalan's larger-than-life status among the Kurds may become part of the problem. Leading PKK members and Kurdish politicians have previously warned that no solution to the Kurdish issue would be viable unless it involves freedom for Ocalan or, at the very least, his transfer to house arrest. Whereas the conditions reportedly outlined in Ocalan's road map might appear palatable to Turkish public opinion, this one is certainly anything but. "House arrest," Erdogan said this week, "is out of the question."

Ocalan may have a narcissistic streak, says Ogur, but he is too smart a politician to make himself the subject of negotiations right from the get-go. If the issue of his future does ever come up, it will be at the end of the process -- after the PKK disbands. "Maybe after that the public view of Ocalan may change; maybe then the public will accept the move to house arrest," says Ogur.

"Yes," he says, "our prime minister said this is impossible. But in Turkey there isn't much that is impossible."


National Security

A Few Good Men

And how the U.S. military lost them.

In the late-90s, Tim Kane was an Air Force vet turned software entrepreneur, and he was surprised to find himself surrounded in the start-up business community of Southern California by fellow veterans who exchanged stories of their times in the service like secret handshakes. The more he thought about it, though, the more it made sense. The military, at its best, is a talent incubator designed to produce leaders -- and a leader in the military has transferrable skills to be a leader in the private sector. Since then, Kane has gotten a doctorate in economics and come back with the statistics to back up his hunch. His numbers also show a problem for the U.S. military: The best and brightest in the services aren't playing the military's game anymore. They're leaving, and in droves, over frustrations with a personnel system that is tantamount to "coercion," in Kane's terms. Here are some examples:

Matt Kapinos

Kapinos graduated from West Point at the top of his class shortly before September 11, 2001. He deployed to Afghanistan, then Iraq, where he chafed at his superior officers' distaste for counterinsurgency strategy. He left the military in 2006 at the rank of captain and returned to school -- law school at Georgetown University. He's not alone. The military's retention crisis is in sharp relief at the captain level. Five years after graduation, only 58 percent of West Point's class of 2002 were still on active duty, despite being on a fast-track for success. As of 2007, the military could barely meet its requirements for promoting captains to majors, so many were leaving. Kapinos, for his part, became disillusioned. "I was a true believer at West Point," he told an interviewer for a profile in Washington Monthly. "I thought I was going to be a four-star general." Kapinos graduated from Georgetown's law program in 2010 and now works for an international law office in Virginia.

Dick Hewitt

While the issue of retention is most acute at the rank of captain, it extends higher as well. In "An Army of None," an FP excerpt from his book, Bleeding Talent, Kane tells the story of Dick Hewitt. A 1984 graduate of West Point, Hewitt was promoted early to major. "At that moment," Kane writes, "Major Hewitt was a prime candidate to serve as a general officer someday, maybe even lead the army." He had "checked all the boxes: one year on division staff, one year as battalion ops officer, and so on." Instead, he left the military after declining an assignment in South Korea that he felt would tear apart his family; the Army lost a promising officer to its own inflexible personnel system. Hewitt is now president of a wealth management firm in California, which he cofounded with an Air Force veteran.

Doug Webster and Scott Waddell

Three years after graduating from Yale and entering the Air Force through ROTC, Webster was named the top intelligence collector in the military in 1994, but the next year, he and another young captain, Waddell, were leaving for the private sector. "They were only captains and NCOs, nonpilots besides, in a service that was a virtual caste system," writes Kane. In other words, they had come to a dead-end. So they left and founded WheelGroup, a start-up cybersecurity business when public Internet was still in its infancy. Three years later, WheelGroup was acquired by Cisco for $124 million. To Kane, Webster and Waddell's transition is a natural choice. The characteristics of successful military leaders are the same as business leaders and entrepreneurs -- they are "innovative, risk-taking, rebellious, adaptable, persistent, opportunistic, and highly intense," Kane argues. In the retention crisis, the military's loss is the private sector's gain, and many Fortune 500 companies have noticed and begun campaigns to recruit veterans.

John Nagl

Nagl served a twenty-year career in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In that time, he jumped from West Point to Oxford, from Iraq (twice) to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When Gen. David Petraeus set about revising the military's counterinsurgency doctrine, he tapped Nagl to coauthor the revised field manual, which had been the subject of Nagl's doctoral thesis. To many, including the U.S. Army and Nagl himself, his is a full and distinguished career in the military. To Kane, though, Nagl is a model of the talent that the U.S. military has failed to recognize and, as a result, lost; he is a case study of Kane's argument that, though the military excels at producing leaders, it is inept at managing them. "I think John should be running the Pentagon with a handful of stars on each shoulder," Kane writes. Instead, Nagl ran the Center for a New American Security, a defense policy think tank, for three years, before taking a brief stint at the U.S. Naval Academy. Next July, he will become the new headmaster of the Haverford School, an exclusive prep school in Pennsylvania.

Paul Yingling

Nagl is not the first high-profile Army vet to go into education. Paul Yingling, who served three tours in Iraq since 2003, rose to prominence after the publication of his article, "A Failure of Generalship," in 2007 when he was a lieutenant colonel. His criticism of the Army's flag officers made him a bold dissenting voice within the military, prompting then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to voice his satisfaction that "the Army's professional journals allow some of our brightest and most innovative officers to critique -- sometimes bluntly -- the way the service does business, to include judgments about senior leadership." The endorsement of the secretary of defense didn't get Yingling far, though. His next assignment had him commanding a battalion guarding detainees in Iraq, and he would later become a professor at the Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He eventually was promoted to colonel in 2011, and soon after announced that he would leave the Army to teach high-school social studies in Colorado. He's not alone. Yingling transitioned to his new career with the help of Troops to Teachers, an organization devoted to veterans in education.

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