War as a PR campaign

War as a PR campaign

The last year of Turkey’s full-fledged fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has shown us one certain thing: The Turkish military has never been so eager to manage the message and public opinion in its lifetime. It has come to such a point that even former and retired generals are reacting like civilians, whereas journalists and columnists are so excited about wearing the uniform. One big danger is that this PR campaign may soon backfire.

Every morning, the inboxes of news channel and newspaper editors receive e-mails from the Turkish General Staff. It is all about how many PKK militants have been killed overnight in southeastern places like Şemdinli, Cizre or Nusaybin. Soon follows another round of e-mails about the cross border air raids on Kandil, Metina, Zap, etc. In the afternoon, pictures of captured ammunition, bombs and equipment show up. Only aggressive PR companies in Istanbul and political parties are this vigilant and determined to sell their message. But sometimes overkill really kills the goodwill.

Last week, I sat down to watch a documentary produced by the late Mehmet Ali Birand about the last military attempt to overthrow an elected government in 1997. It was called “28 February, the Last Coup.”

Birand and his team had managed to untangle a series of events that had led to the fall of the Çiller-Erbakan government and how eager the military was to create a message of its own in the meantime. The media at that time had played along the case of the “Islamic threat” very nicely. All those briefings and phone calls made an impact. Now, two decades later, the Turkish General Staff is doing things in a more careful way, but still there are problems.

Too many PKK members killed and too much ammunition and bombs captured make ordinary people feel they are less safe, not more. The morning people see the headline “PKK crushed” on the newspaper and hear another soldier was martyred, they question if somebody is fooling them. Yes, we all know that it will not be over in a day, or in a year. But let’s be realistic. That “until the last terrorist is killed…” rhetoric is no longer valid.

People in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır are still heartbroken and squeezed between the state and the PKK. There are very loud rumors about the restructuring efforts in its Sur district. A young man living in Istanbul, who refused to give his house to the state, told me last weekend that TOKİ (Turkish Housing Development Administration)-style construction will start soon and poor people without proper documentation will never get a house in the district. “We had heard about this six years ago, even the building plans were ready,” he said, “But nobody agreed to give up their houses. There were peace talks going on. So government officials had to suspend their plans. Now it is all open space. They crushed everything.”
The Turkish military wants to come back to the public scene with a bang. It wants to reestablish trust and credibility. We get it. But the way to do it needs much more than videos and pictures of the anti-terror fight.

Quoting Gen. David Petraeus, an American general who has seen a lot more than this, “Tell me how this ends.” After four long decades of fighting the Kurdish insurgency, the Turkish military should have a better answer than “until the last bullet…”