Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The morass in Iraq and deepening difficulties in Afghanistan have not deterred the Bush administration from taking on a dangerous and questionable new secret operation. At a high level, U.S. officials are working with their Turkish counterparts on a joint military operation to suppress Kurdish guerrillas and capture their leaders. Through covert activity, their goal is to forestall Turkey from invading Iraq.

While detailed operational plans are necessarily concealed, the broad outlines have been presented to selected members of Congress as required by law. U.S. Special Forces are to work with the Turkish Army to suppress the Kurds' guerrilla campaign. The Bush administration is trying to prevent opening another war front in Iraq that would have disastrous consequences. But this gamble risks major exposure and failure.

The Turkish initiative reflects the temperament and personality of George W. Bush. Even faithful congressional supporters of his Iraq policy have been stunned by the president's upbeat mood, oblivious to the loss of his political base. Despite the failing effort to impose a military solution in Iraq, he is willing to try imposing arms -- though clandestinely -- on Turkey's ancient problems with its Kurdish minority, comprising one-fifth of the country's population.

The development of an autonomous Kurdish entity inside Iraq, resulting from the decline and fall of Saddam Hussein, has alarmed the Turkish government. That led to Ankara's refusal to permit entry of U.S. combat troops through Turkey into Iraq, an eleventh hour complication for the 2003 invasion. As political power grew for the Kurds inside Iraq, the Turkish government became steadily more uneasy about the centuries-old project of a Kurdistan spreading across international boundaries -- and chewing up big pieces of Turkey.

The dormant PKK {Kurdistan Workers Party) Turkish Kurd guerrilla fighters came to life. By June, the Turkish government was demonstrating its concern by lobbing artillery shells across the border. Ankara began protesting, to both Washington and Baghdad, that PKK was using northern Iraq as a base for guerrilla operations. On July 11 in Washington, Turkish Ambassador Nabi Sensoy became the first Turkish official to claim publicly that the Iraqi Kurds have claims on Turkish territory. On July 20 (two days before his successful re-election), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a trans-border military incursion into Iraq against the Kurds.

On July 25, Murat Karayilan, head of the PKK Political Council, predicted "the Turkish Army will attack southern Kurdistan." Turkey has a well-trained, well-equipped army of 250,000 near the border, facing some 4,000 PKK fighters hiding in the mountains of northern Iraq. But significant cross-border operations surely would bring to the PKK's side the military forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the best U.S. ally in Iraq.

What is Washington to do in the dilemma of two friends battling each other on an unwanted new front in Iraq? The surprising answer was given in secret briefings on Capitol Hill last week by Eric S. Edelman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and now under secretary of defense for policy. A Foreign Service officer who once was U.S. ambassador to Turkey, he revealed to lawmakers plans for a covert operation of U.S. Special Forces helping the Turks neutralize the PKK. They would behead the guerrilla organization by helping Turkey get rid of PKK leaders that they have targeted for years.

Edelman's listeners were stunned. Wasn't this risky? He responded he was sure of success, adding that the U.S. role could be concealed and always would be denied. Even if all this is true, some of the briefed lawmakers left wondering whether this was a wise policy for handling the beleaguered Kurds who had been betrayed so often by U.S. governments in years past.

The plan shows that hard experience has not dissuaded President Bush from attempting difficult ventures employing the use of force. On the contrary, two of the most intrepid supporters of the Iraq intervention -- John McCain and Lindsey Graham -- were surprised by Bush during a recent meeting with him. When they shared their impressions with colleagues, they commented on how unconcerned the president seemed. That may explain his willingness to embark on a questionable venture against the Kurds.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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