Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Bush administration devised a plan to stave off the very serious possibility of Turkish military action in northern Iraq. It was potentially parlous: U.S. special forces would work with the Turkish military to locate and capture leaders of a violent Kurdish rebel group. Covert action, classified planning and the utmost secrecy were required — but so too were congressional briefings. Unimpressed Capitol Hill denizens chucked prudence to the wind as one or more of the members present presumably leaked the content of briefings, conducted by Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, to columnist Robert Novak, undermining U.S. interests and effectively scuttling the plan’s chances at success.

“Edelman’s listeners were stunned,” Mr. Novak writes. When some of the lawmakers at the secret briefing expressed their concern, “[Mr. Edelman] responded that he was sure of success, adding that the U.S. role could be concealed and always would be denied.” That is, until it ended up on the Op-Ed page of The Washington Post yesterday. Assigning special forces to assist the Turkish military against the PKK “risks major exposure and failure,” Mr. Novak notes in the same column. Thanks to the loose-lipped lawmaker — or lawmakers — at the briefing, “exposure” is no longer a risk but a full blown reality. If that was one of the standards for failure, then whoever saw it fit to share this highly sensitive information with Mr. Novak has assured not only that this operation cannot succeed, but that the United States suffers the diplomatic fallout with our Kurdish allies that this news will precipitate.

The resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the violent Kurdish separatists, operates from northern Iraq. Turkey’s powerful generals want to take military action even though the country’s civilian leadership has, at U.S. insistence, shown more forbearance on the issue. Washington cannot walk this diplomatic tightrope indefinitely, and the significant number of Turkish troops amassed on the border with Iraq adds a new sense of urgency to the situation. A cross-border military operation would disrupt the most stable part of Iraq and have serious repercussions throughout the country. The Bush administration talked a tough line against the PKK, but Turks were anxious and believed their concerns were not being adequately addressed. This kind of joint operation had the potential to change that outlook.

There is good reason to think that the capture of high-profile PKK leaders would have gone a long way toward allying Turkish concerns and could have helped Washington persuade Ankara to relax its military presence along the Turkey-Iraq border. We can only speculate as to whether the plan to use U.S. special forces would have been successful; now that it has been made public, the operation has been severely compromised — if it hasn’t been forced off the table altogether.

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