Fighting terrorism with professionals under spotlight
Lale Sanibrahimoglu,
29 June 2007

A decision announced on Wednesday, June 27 by Gen. İlker Başbuğ, commander of the Turkish Land Forces, which target the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), means that as of 2009 the fight will be conducted exclusively by professional commando units without the involvement of conscripts.

His decision necessitates an analysis of the overall Turkish military recruitment, conscription and reserve forces policies. Speaking at the June 27 press conference, held following a two-day press tour organized at the Isparta-Eğirdir Mountain Brigade Commando School and Training Center in south central Anatolia, Gen. Başbuğ said a professional commando brigade will be set up in early 2008.

Başbuğ’s announcement comes in the midst of increased calls for a halt to using conscripts with inadequate training in the fight against terrorism, replacing them with professionals as part of an effective fight against the PKK.

The commander declared that between May 2008 and end-2009 all six commando brigades will make the change to 100 percent professional personnel.

Thus conscripted officers, privates and enlisted specialists will not be directly tasked with active counterterrorism activities; the newly established professional commando brigade will be comprised of specialized sergeants.

This professional commando brigade will reportedly number between 10,000 and 18,000 to ensure continuity in the fight against terrorism, Başbuğ added. Conscripted officers, meanwhile, will be given tasks within the internal security battalions, such as fighting terrorism in cities, he said.

After more than two decades of battling against the PKK, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) decision to start fighting terrorism with professionals is a positive step, though considered late by some.

However the TSK’s policy of restructuring commando brigades is not expected to affect the existing conscription-based military service regulations in the country.

Turkey, a NATO member, mandates compulsory military service under Article 72 of the Constitution, which says: “National service is the right and duty of every Turk. The manner in which this service shall be performed, or considered as performed, either in the Armed Forces or in public service shall be regulated by law.”

Compulsory military service applies to all Turkish male citizens between the ages of 20 to 41 who are deemed to be in adequate health. Men who perform military service in different forms effectively remain in the reserve forces to a certain age. Enlisted specialists and privates are regarded as reservists until the age of 41, while officers and non-commissioned officers, depending on rank, are regarded as reservists between the ages of 41 and 60.

Those in higher education or vocational training programs prior to their military service are allowed to delay their service until they have completed the programs. The duration of the basic military service varies.

In 2003 compulsory military service for privates was reduced from 18 to 15 months, the service period of reserve officers from 16 to 12 months and service period of short-term military service from eight months to six months.

Despite a recently announced plan to cut the size of the army by 20 to 30 percent under the 2014 restructuring project, the politically powerful TSK did not reveal any plans to reduce the conscription period, nor the conscription-based system. Indeed military officials did not expect any further reduction in the conscription period, which was already reduced in 2003.

Instead of a transition to an all-volunteer army, the TSK has been pursuing a concept of professionalism through the recruitment of expert personnel employed in certain tasks. Priority is being given to the employment of professionally enlisted specialists replacing conscripts at critical posts that require continuity and high levels of expertise. It also plans to expand the employment of contract officers and noncommissioned officers at the tactical leadership level.

If the Turkish army is reduced as planned by 2014, its size will decrease from its current level of 400,000 soldiers to between 320,000 and 280,000 troops.

The TSK, the second-largest military force within NATO after the US, has around 800,000 personnel, including the Gendarmerie General Command and the Coast Guard Command.

For Turkish citizens who have lived or worked abroad for at least three years, a basic military training of one month is offered instead of full term military service on the condition they pay a certain fee in foreign currencies.

Women are allowed to become officers and take up combat positions, though they are not subject to compulsory military service. Since 2001 women have been recruited as officers and noncommissioned officers on the same conditions as men.

Around 60,000 TSK personnel comprise regular officers, including generals, while the remaining are conscripts.

Refusing obligatory military service due to conscientious objection is illegal in Turkey, and punishable by imprisonment.

A female Turkish writer faced imprisonment before she was acquitted last July by an İstanbul court that rules an article of hers, which criticized the military policy on conscientious objection, did not constitute a crime.

In her column, published in Yeni Aktuel newsweekly in December 2005, Perihan Mağden defended conscientious objector Mehmet Tarhan, who was sentenced to four years in a military prison for disobedience after he refused to wear his military uniform. She argued that Turkey needed to establish a civilian service as an alternative to compulsory military conscription.

But Tarhan, also a gay activist, was released from military prison on March 9, 2006, last year, following an order of the Military Court of Appeals in Ankara. The court reasoned that in the event Tarhan was sentenced, his punishment would unlikely be higher than what he had already served.

The procedure is very similar to the case of Osman Murat Ulke. It can be assumed that the Court of Appeals reacted to the pressure created by the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in Ulke’s case.

The Strasbourg court ruled: “The numerous criminal prosecutions against the applicant, the cumulative effects of the criminal convictions which resulted from them and the constant alternation between prosecutions and terms of imprisonment, together with the possibility that he would be liable to prosecution for the rest of his life, had been disproportionate to the aim of ensuring that he did his military service. They were more calculated to repressing the applicant’s intellectual personality, inspiring in him feelings of fear, anguish and vulnerability capable of humiliating and debasing him and breaking his resistance and will. The clandestine life amounting almost to ‘civil death’ that the applicant had been compelled to adopt was incompatible with the punishment regime of a democratic society.”

Tarhan is now in the same situation. Although released from prison, he faces a “clandestine life amounting almost to ‘civil death’,” unless Turkey finally recognizes the right to conscientious objection and solves a backlog of almost 80 existing conscientious objectors. The Military Court of Appeals ruled the European court’s decisions on conscientious objection as non-abiding for Turkey. Homosexuality is an “advanced psychological disorder” the court said, and ordered objector Tarhan to serve in the military.

Turkish reserve forces status

In Turkey reserve forces do not mean the same thing as in many European countries, particularly where military service is not compulsory.

In theory Turkish reserve personnel basically function as auxiliary units. In addition they are also appointed to take part in non-existing units, which are established during mobilization. They are equipped with light arms and accordingly mostly operate behind the battlefield to provide secure conditions for the existing units’ operations.

In reality the TSK’s use of soldiers doing their compulsory military service -- mainly in the fight against the PKK, which has increased its violence in the past two years -- recently received criticism from an Ankara-based think tank.

In its July 2006 report, the International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO/USAK) urged the military to conduct operations against the PKK with professional TSK members rather than conscripts if TSK seeks to achieve a positive result.

In addition, under the Civil Defense Act of 1960, both reservists and men and women between the ages of 15 and 65 (with some exceptions, such as the disabled) are entitled to defend the nation in the event of natural disasters, enemy attacks, etc. The responsibilities of the Civil Defense General Directorate are as follows:

a) set up the civil defense services nationwide and to ensure the planning application, coordination and supervision of measures taken by the public and private establishments;

b) plan and execute all activities for unarmed, protective, rescue measures, emergency rescue and first aid;

c) establish standards for the fire department, to educate its staff, supervise and coordinate them for fire protection and prevention;

d) train civil defense staff and inform the public about civil defense;

e) manage civil defense funds;

f) fulfill the duty of the Defense Ministry’s Secretariat;

g) perform other duties given by special laws.

Civil defense organizations carry out these functions through central and provincial organizations in accordance with the Civil Defense Act.

The Turkish General Staff organizes regular annual mobilization exercises -- the last one staged June 1-9 this year, code-named Yildirim-2006. Some 131 reserve personnel, three vehicles and various public agencies and institutions participated in this exercise.

The permanent organization of the reserve forces within the Ministry of Defense is the Directorate of Mobilization. The permanent section that deals with the reserves has more than one branch and employs dozens of staff.

No reserve shortages due to conscription

As military service is compulsory in Turkey, the TSK currently does not have any problem in meeting reserve personnel requirements.

If the TSK needs reserve personnel it can call conscripts among those who have recently completed their military service. In addition, Gendarmerie General Command personnel of around 280,000, responsible, in theory, to the Interior Ministry during peacetime, can also be regarded as Turkey’s reserve forces. Having a young population also helps Turkey meet its reserve needs. Thus there is no need to recruit foreign nationals into the Turkish military.

Western military analysts in Ankara liken Turkey’s reserve status to the Cold War system.

Despite some reforms made by the Turkish government since 2003 to reduce the strong political role of the TSK, one of the conditions laid down by the EU for accession, the Turkish military has backpedalled in meeting those reforms.