The state of the Turkish military

The state of the Turkish military

A recent explosion at a military ammunition depot in Afyon, western Turkey, not only killed 25 soldiers but also raised more questions about the state of the Turkish military.

Government officials have been trying to convince the public since the night of Sept. 5 that the explosion was not sabotage (by, for example, a suicide bomber among the soldiers, which is one the scenarios that has been flying about), but an accident. This effort itself has focused attention on the military, since the possibility of an accident at Turkey’s third-largest ammunition depot, which is run under strict NATO rules and procedures, could mean the possibility of a major failure in implementing those procedures. If that is the case, it could mean a failure in the once much-praised discipline of the Turkish military. A legal investigation was instantly opened against the commander of the depot.

The Turkish military is no longer in its glory days. As the actor in the three military coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, and all during the Cold War, soldiers have enjoyed unquestioned autonomy from politics until the cycle of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments began in 2002.

Following an attempt by the military to influence the presidential elections of 2007, prosecutors and judges equipped with extraordinary authority opened court cases to investigate alleged coup plots against the government. Those cases, with the code names “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz,” have been going on since then, causing a debate over long detention periods for suspects and unjustified accusations.

Among those under arrest in these cases are 36 high-ranking military officers. They have been dismissed from the army following a decision made at the Supreme Military Council meeting in July, and were transferred from a military prison to the civilian Silivri prison near Istanbul on Sept. 6. There they joined former chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who is being tried as part of the Ergenekon case, accused of conspiring against the Tayyip Erdoğan government. Başbuğ’s detention earlier this year caused additional tremors within the ranks of the military.

Among security circles a lot of stories are being told of a lack of morale among military officers. One such story is about the commander of a military station near the Iraqi border, who asked his headquarters whether he should return fire at attacking militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), because he did not want to be put on trial later on. 

Another one is about a middle-rank officer who asked to be excused from a meeting at which possible response scenarios in case of new attacks were to be discussed, in the presence of a minister and the governor of the district. “Some of my colleagues are in prison for attending scenario assessments, sir,” the officer allegedly said. “Just give us the orders and we will execute them.” 

Another story tells of an officer participating in the recent Turkish-U.S. joint work on Syrian border-security scenarios. When the diplomats began discussing possible moves on the other side of the border, the officer allegedly stopped talking, saying he did not have written orders to assess that, and would not continue.

For years, members of the Turkish military have been accused of overdoing it with taking the initiative, and now the case is just the opposite: Soldiers are asking for clear orders from political authorities on every step that is to be taken, even under present danger, in order not to face court cases like the one Başbuğ is being tried under. Now the belief is that the courts are overstepping their authority. But this strain within the system is clearly eroding the capabilities of the military, at a time when the PKK has launched a wild armed campaign and the situation in Syria and the rest of the region is becoming tenser every day.