The U.S. military has flown unarmed Predator drones, similar to the armed… (/ )
The Obama administration is considering a request from Turkey to base a fleet of Predator drones on Turkish soil for counterterrorism operations in northern Iraq, a decision that could strengthen a diplomatic alliance but drag the United States deeper into a regional conflict.
The U.S. military has flown the unarmed Predators from Iraqi bases since 2007 and shared the planes’ surveillance video with Turkey as part of a secretive joint crackdown against fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Unless a new home for the Predators is found, however, the counterterrorism partnership could cease by Dec. 31, when all U.S. forces are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq.
The Obama administration has not yet made a decision on the Turkish request, according to senior U.S. military officials.
Previously undisclosed diplomatic cables show Turkey has become highly dependent on the Predators, U-2 spy aircraft and other U.S. intelligence sources in its conflict with the PKK. The Kurdish group, which is fighting to create an autonomous enclave in Turkey, has launched cross-border attacks from its hideouts in northern Iraq for years. Turkey has responded with airstrikes and artillery attacks but has also sent ground troops into Iraq, further destabilizing an already volatile area.
Turkey’s request to host the Predators on its territory is an unexamined consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which some countries fear could leave a power vacuum in an unstable region. It also underscores how U.S. unmanned aircraft have swiftly become the leading tactical weapon against terrorist groups around the world, as well as a favored instrument of foreign policy.
Besides deploying armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the United States is expanding drone missions over Yemen and Somalia. It has sent surveillance drones into Mexico for counternarcotics operations and supplied small surveillance drones to the Colombian military for counterterrorism missions.
Moral and policy dilemmas
While the drones have proved to be a highly effective tool in waging unconventional warfare, their rapid proliferation presents the U.S. government with moral and policy dilemmas. The Predator missions in northern Iraq have bolstered relations with Turkey, for instance but have also further exposed the United States to a messy local war.
Although the U.S. government officially labels the PKK a terrorist organization, the group has not targeted American interests.
The classified diplomatic cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks, reveal that Turkish officials have repeatedly pressed their American counterparts to escalate their involvement against the PKK and eradicate the group before U.S. forces leave Iraq.
“Before your withdrawal, it is our common responsibility to eliminate this threat,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Army Gen. Ray Odierno, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in a February 2010 meeting in Ankara, according to a cable summarizing the meeting.
Odierno and other U.S. officials agreed to Turkish requests to adopt an “enhanced joint action plan” against the PKK, according to other cables. But the U.S. military has tried to keep its involvement limited, while concealing the details. It has continued to fly surveillance missions, share intelligence and help select targets, but it has resisted Turkish pressure to bomb or attack Kurdish militants directly, the cables show.
Michael Hammer, a State Department spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about the role of the Predators. “Turkey is a long-standing ally and partner of the United States, and we continue to support Turkey in its struggle against PKK terrorism through various forms of cooperation,” he said.
“We support continued cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK, which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States,” he added.
Hammer also said the State Department “strongly condemns the illegal disclosure of classified information” contained in the cables. “It threatens our national security and undermines our effort to work with countries to solve shared problems.”
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and the Turkish Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Worsening war with militants
The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has worsened in recent weeks. In retaliation for PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers and convoys, Turkey has ordered a barrage of airstrikes that have killed more than 150 Kurdish militants since mid-August, according to the Turkish military. Human Rights Watch has reported that a handful of civilians in northern Iraq have been killed and that hundreds have been forced from their homes there.
More than 40,000 people have died in the conflict since 1984, when the PKK began a violent campaign for self-rule in southeastern Turkey.