Commentary

10,000 Turkish Troops: Too Many and Not Enough

By Charles V. Peña
October 30, 2003

The suicide car bomb outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad is at least one sign that not everyone in Iraq would welcome Turkish troops in Iraq. Nonetheless, the United States continues to push for having Turkey send as many as 10,000 troops to Iraq to join the 130,000 U.S. soldiers and the more than 20,000 troops from 27 other countries already there. Although the Turkish parliament has approved sending troops to Iraq, it’s still too early to call it a done deal because several details are still unresolved. Don’t forget that Ankara strung the United States along and then at the eleventh hour backed out of a $20 billion deal to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases as staging areas during the Iraq war. But the latest terrorist attack underscores that it’s not too early to question the overall wisdom of having 10,000 Turkish troops in Iraq — and whether they will make any difference.

To begin, the Iraqi Governing Council — the group of Iraqis, handpicked by the U.S., who are supposed to lead the country into a new era of democracy — doesn’t want Turkish troops in Iraq. But Paul Bremer — America’s civilian administrator — can override the council, so what they think doesn’t matter. Reportedly, Bremer has already blocked the release of a council statement denouncing the prospective Turkish deployment. Not exactly an action consistent with the democratic principles of free speech and hardly an example of respect for a fledgling democracy.

The Iraqi Governing Council has good reason to be leery of Turkish troops. Kurds in northern Iraq have a history of conflict with Turkey, whose Ottoman Empire once included Iraq. They are concerned that the presence of Turkish troops would stir up ethnic tensions between Kurds and the Turkmen minority. The Turks have been concerned about Kurdish autonomy in Iraq resulting in a de facto independent Kurdish homeland and rekindling calls for separatism among Turkey’s 12 million Kurds. Both sides, then, have long-standing worries about a potential land grab, so deploying Turkish troops to Iraq only exacerbates the unease, which is probably a prescription for less — rather than more — stability and security in Iraq.

Further, if Turkey is seen to be increasing its influence in Iraq, it would be foolish to assume that Iraq’s other neighbors — especially Iran — would sit idly by. Again, less stability and security for Iraq.

But even if these concerns can somehow be miraculously managed, the larger — and perhaps more important — question is whether 10,000 Turkish troops can help suppress the ongoing insurgency. The answer is “no.” The history of the British experience in Northern Ireland (a close parallel to America’s precarious position in Iraq) suggests a need for10 to 20 soldiers per 1,000 population for there to be any realistic hope of restoring security and stability. In Iraq, that translates to a force of 240,000 to 480,000 troops. Adding 10,000 Turkish troops would bring coalition force strength in Iraq to only 160,000. You do the math.

Back in Washington, the Bush administration continues to be in denial about troop requirements. With five of the Army’s 10 active divisions already deployed to Iraq, getting to the low-end number of 240,000 troops is more than a bit of a stretch. Most countries are unwilling to contribute troops to a peacekeeping mission for a war they didn’t support, and the U.S. military is burdened with obsolete security commitments around the world. And if assembling 240,000 troops is next to impossible, then 480,000-the equivalent of the total U.S. Army active force — is out of the question.

That leaves American policy makers with only two options. The first is to continue the status quo, an act of tactical and political insanity. The second is to develop an exit strategy. That doesn’t mean abandoning Iraq, but simply making good on the president’s prewar promise: “The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq’s new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people.” And instead of insisting on democracy, which many Muslims equate with Western values and culture, Iraqi self-determination and self-rule should be the goal — with the clear understanding that whatever form a new government in Baghdad takes, it must not support terrorists who would attack the United States.

Ultimately, the proposed Turkish troop deployment is merely a band-aid on a gaping wound. It won’t solve America’s security problems in Iraq. Turkish involvement would only produce body bags being shipped back to Ankara, which might roil a Turkish population that is 70 percent opposed to sending troops into Iraq. The United States will create even more problems for itself — in both Iraq and Turkey — if it forces the Iraqis to accept Turkish troops.

Charles V. Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.