Since gathering on Turkey’s border with northern Iraq last week, Turkish troops have been mounting small-scale attacks against the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) inside Iraqi borders. These attacks have reportedly consisted of Turkish special forces with the support of helicopter gunships, targeting PKK bases.
The United States has urged Turkey to back down. Kurdish officials, on the other hand, have said little. This is likely because they know any large-scale attack by Turkey is likely to be ineffective. Take a look at this map, published recently in the New York Times. Because of the rocky terrain, it would be nearly impossible for Turkey to mount a successful campaign to destroy the PKK. There are simply too many places to hide (click for the full map):
When I looked at this map for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the Tora Bora region in Afghanistan (check out the similarities between this map of Tora Bora and the Times map—also, check out Google Earth’s shot of Tora Bora, and compare with a shot of the Turkish/Iraqi border). U.S. troops had Osama bin Laden cornered there in late 2001, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to send troops in. Why? Because he believed the area was too mountainous for any attack to be effective. Instead, Rumsfeld, perhaps citing the lessons learned during the Afghan war with the Soviets, relied on the Northern Alliance to mount the ground assault with U.S. air support, and the al Qaeda leader eventually escaped. Rumsfeld’s decision was a controversial one, and who knows if U.S. troops would have found bin Laden. But it is a textbook example of how difficult it is to achieve a combat objective on rocky land. The Turks ought to take note.