The US and the YPG, the PKK terror group’s Syrian wing, have an open relationship, but long before the YPG’s emergence, the Centcom refused to go against the terror group during the invasion of Iraq.
For the US Central Command (Centcom) and the White House, there has been an elephant-in-the-room situation regarding the presence of PKK terrorist organisation in northern Iraq, especially at the height of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
While the US considers PKK as a terrorist organisation, Centcom, a military wing responsible for running America's Middle East operations, has carved its own path when it comes to dealing with PKK, even though it means contradicting with Washington's official policy on the terror group.
Last week, Centcom issued condolences for several killed members of the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which Washington projects as its ally in its war against Daesh. The US claims that the YPG and the PKK are separate entities despite the strong evidence which proves that they are under the same leadership.
Contrary to Washington's global pledge to root out terrorism, Centcom’s non-confrontational approach toward the PKK goes beyond the YPG, which came into existence in 2011 at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. During the US occupation of Iraq, Centcom did not perceive the PKK as a threat and even resisted a few times against the White House decisions “to eliminate” the group, according to Matthew Bryza, a former top Bush administration official.
While it's common for US diplomats and Centcom to have disagreements over certain issues from time to time, the Central Command’s PKK policy during Washington's invasion of Iraq was more than an internal disagreement, says Bryza.
During the Iraq War, Bryza was the lead person in the staff of the National Security Council under the Bush administration, and had a tense relation with Centcom on the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq.
“What was a big problem was how the Central Command absolutely refused to implement President Bush’s decision that PKK is a terrorist organisation and is an enemy of the US and whose safe haven in northern Iraq, which was under US control, had to be eliminated,” Bryza tells TRT World.
The PKK, which has led to tens of thousands of deaths across Türkiye during its decades-long terror campaign against Ankara, used northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains as its headquarters since the late 1990s. The terror group also has other hideouts and military camps across northern Iraq close to the Turkish border.
Against the Bush doctrine
According to Bryza, the Centcom’s rejection of the White House’s PKK decision goes against the Bush Doctrine, which emerged after the September 11 attacks advocating that a person or any organisation providing safety or haven to terrorists is also guilty of terrorist actions.
“Once the US gained control of northern Iraq, where the PKK has its headquarters and area of operations, the US would have been in violation of President Bush’s own doctrine if it did not take action to eliminate PKK’s terrorist threat to Türkiye. Part of my job was to implement President Bush’s decision all the way through the Central Command,” says Bryza.
But Centcom “resisted and they came up with excuses for why they could not move against the PKK in northern Iraq”, frustrating the former US diplomat.
While Centcom claimed that they did not have enough troops to fight both Saddam’s army and the PKK in northern Iraq, at the same time, then-Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was contradictorily telling the American people that the US had plenty of troops and did not need more troops to conduct military operations, Bryza says.
“Those two things can not be true simultaneously,” observes the experienced diplomat. Even after the US completely invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam’s army, there was no progress at all against the PKK as the Centcom then came up with different reasons, stating that they needed to focus on anti-American Sunni uprising across western Iraq, Bryza says.
Centcom also claimed that going against the PKK might have created instability in northern Iraq, Bryza says.
Mehmet Emin Koc, a former Turkish special forces officer who participated in Türkiye’s cross-border operations in northern Iraq in the 2000s, also believes that Centcom opposed Ankara’s cross-border operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, claiming that it would destabilise the region.
Koc thinks that during the invasion, Centcom allowed the PKK to use northern Iraq as a safe haven. “While the PKK terrorist organisation carried out all kinds of terrorist acts along the Türkiye-Iraq border and even within Turkish territory, they (Centcom) created a safe living space for the PKK in the mountainous areas in the northern Iraq,” Koc tells TRT World.
Turkish opposition to US invasion
Bryza, who was tasked with developing positive relations with Türkiye and some other countries during the US invasion, thinks that Centcom’s PKK policy was also partly based on Ankara’s critical rejection of allowing American troops to invade Iraq via Turkish territories.
“That made many in Centcom angry about Türkiye and to look at Türkiye not as a partner with whom to conduct this war but rather as an obstacle and a problem to be managed,” Bryza says, referring to the Turkish rejection of the US war on Iraq. After that “Central Command did not want to do anything to make Türkiye happy,” he says.
While Centcom might still be angry at Ankara’s rejection of allowing American troops to enter Iraq from Türkiye, many US officials and experts now strongly believe that the 2003 occupation itself was a terrible mistake. Many Turkish analysts say Ankara did not have regrets about the fact that Türkiye did not participate in the ill-thought US war on Iraq, which has still not recovered from the invasion’s disastrous consequences.
“Türkiye has such a deep political understanding that the deterioration of the stability and peace environment that may occur in its neighbour Iraq may affect itself in the long term. For this reason, Türkiye adopted a stance against the Iraq War and considered that staying out of the war would be appropriate within the scope of its national interests,” says Koc.
Like Bryza, he also believes that Turkish opposition to the US invasion still shows its effects on Ankara-Washington ties.
Edward Erickson, a former US military officer and a prominent expert on military history who was deployed to Iraq and had also worked in Kurdish-led autonomous region in northern Iraq in the past under Centcom, also finds Washington’s handling of the PKK problematic during the invasion of Iraq.
“This is a great question. Why didn't the US go after a recognised terrorist organisation that was easily within its operational reach?” Erickson asks.
“We never stationed US forces north of Mosul and we never stationed US forces inside the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) itself. I think the reason that we chose not to go after the PKK is because it might have led to a ‘blue-on-blue’ confrontation with the (Kurdish) Peshmerga. The PKK was never a threat to US forces or to the mission in Iraq,” Erickson tells TRT World. Blue-on-blue confrontation refers to military engagements between allied forces.
Northern Iraq equation
Erickson's account suggests the US did not see the PKK as an obstacle to its military occupation of Iraq, but it always factored in regional complications such as the presence of Peshmerga forces, Washington's key ally. The US Centcom, according to Erickson, wasn't sure how Peshmerga would react to any possible military action against PKK, even though the two sides had been enemies for decades.
“Yes, the Peshmerga and the PKK are rivals to some extent. I really don't know what the US knew about the relationship between them, but it is easy to make mistakes in combat,” says the military analyst, believing that a confrontation with either Masoud Barzani’s KDP or the late Jalal Talabani’s PUK parties would have destabilised the fragile Baghdad government in the early stage of the US invasion.
Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish political analyst and a former top adviser to the Iraqi presidency, thinks similarly to Erickson. While the US is aligned with the YPG in Syria, it does not have a real understanding with the PKK leadership in Iraq, Bulovali tells TRT World.
While the PKK managed to wean itself off the US' anti-terror scanner, Bulovali believes the terror group “owes” its presence in northern Iraq more to the Iranian support than the American backing. “Washington coordinated with Tehran during the Iraq invasion and two powers still maintain a working relationship when it comes to turbulent Iraqi politics. I believe the PKK is active in northern Iraq not because of the US support but the Iranian backing,” he tells TRT World.
Despite Centcom’s resistance to eliminating the PKK from northern Iraq, in 2007, during then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Bush in Washington, the US reached a political understanding with Türkiye for Ankara’s cross-border operations against the terror group, according to Bryza.
In the crucial meeting, Bryza finally got an opportunity to overcome Centom’s PKK resistance. During the meeting, he articulated to the American leadership that Türkiye has “reasonable” demands, like operational intelligence sharing from its NATO ally, and did not request a major operation from the US against the PKK in northern Iraq.
“That became a real breakthrough and US-Türkiye relations in regard to the PKK started to concertise after that,” the former US official says.
Despite the “breakthrough”, many Turkish analysts believe that Centcom’s unwillingness to eliminate the PKK leadership from northern Iraq laid the ground for Washington’s next chapter with the YPG in northern Syria. The US now allows the PKK’s Syrian offshoot to use northern Syria as a safe haven, much like it did to the PKK leadership in northern Iraq during the invasion.
“Of course, Centcom will not go after the PKK now in northern Iraq. It does not have the ability to do so. Even back in 2003 and 2007, Centcom was not willing to go after the PKK,” says Bryza.
US Centcom gave no responses to TRT World’s questions for this article.