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Crushing v. Redirecting Defiance: The Cases of Turkey and Pakistan

The similarity between the issues the West faces with Turkey and those it has faced for years with Pakistan has led some to declare that Turkey is a Pakistan 2.0. While there are a host of similarities between the two nations, the crux of the Pakistan 2.0 theory is that Turkey is a foil to the United States in Syria in same way that Pakistan is a foil to the United States in Afghanistan. On the surface this comparison seems valid: the unstated motives behind both Turkey’s actions and inactions in Syria, and Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan is internal ethnic politics. However, Turkey and Pakistan have two very different approaches to managing the restive people inhabiting their hinterlands, the Kurds and the Pashtuns. The difference between these approaches represents a crucial difference in the type of challenge each nation poses to the United States.

The provinces of Pakistan that serve as the Pashtun homeland are notoriously hard to govern, with residents often displaying an age-old hostility to foreigners and a spirit of loyalty to kin, clan, and tribe that, while skeptical of the modern nation state, is akin to nationalism. So how did Pakistan deal with the Pashtuns? Until recently, Pakistan left them alone. Despite its name, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) was not genuinely administered by the government’s ruling political agent. His role was primarily to manage the tribes and contain feuds and disputes. The traditional Pashtun tribal code—the pashtunwali—formed the basis of law, tribal elders maintained their authority, and most senior civil and military officials in both provinces were Pashtun. When the Afghan government in the 1950s tried to stoke Pashtun nationalism, Pakistan integrated Pashtuns into high-ranking positions in the military and civil service, quelling any hints of rebellion.

The Pakistani government’s support for the Afghan Taliban is well documented. What is less well understood is the ethnic component to that support. The Pakistani state feared during the Afghan civil war that whoever wrestled control of Kabul would invite Indian influence, either welcoming Indian troops or denying Pakistani ones access to a fallback position, thus leaving Pakistan surrounded. Looking to their west, Pakistan officials viewed the Pashtuns as a restless people whose energy could be funneled to fight Pakistan’s battles, much as they had already done in Kashmir. So Pakistan funded and supported a grassroots Pashtun movement, the Taliban, fighting predominately non-Pashtun warlords for power. An increasingly violent insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, and an especially violent attack on school children have forced the Pakistani military to take the threat the Pashtun Islamist group poses more seriously. However, until recently, their strategy was one appeasing and ignoring the Pakistani Pashtuns and using the Afghan Pashtuns as a hammer in their foreign policy tool-belt. If Turkey is something of a Pakistan 2.0 we would expect to see them to treat their restive ethnic minorities, specifically the Kurds, in the same strategic way.

However, the reality on the ground is much different for the Kurds than it was for the Pashtuns. Rather than viewing this mountain-dwelling minority group as a potential resource, a group whose energy and drive for independence could be redirected against their enemies, the Turks have engaged in a systematic campaign of persecution against the Kurds.  The founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, institutionalized a “Turkification” policy that led to the forcible relocation of Kurds, the suppression of Kurdish culture, and the denial of the very existence of a Kurdish people. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some progress on Kurdish rights early in his term as Prime Minister, allowing Kurdish language broadcasting and electives in universities, but this pales in comparison to the suffering the Kurds have faced during the Erdogan government’s war with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Indeed, over the past three decades, the Ankara government has banned numerous Kurdish political parties and arrested Kurdish politicians, including a recent campaign of prosecutions aimed at cutting support for the Kurdish nationalists.

Turkey’s battle with the PKK and fear of the formation of a united Kurdistan has dictated its foreign policy in states with neighboring Kurdish communities. Most troublesome to Erdogan now is the prospect of Syrian Kurds, under the banner of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), claiming territory for a Syrian Kurdistan which could either inspire Turkish Kurds or provide a safe haven for the PKK. This poses a dilemma for the United States since the Kurds have proven themselves to be the most effective fighters against the Islamic State. Faced with a war on its southern border which pits the Shia Assad government against Salafi-jihadist extremists and Kurdish nationalists, Turkey has mostly stayed out of the fray. Turkey’s reluctance to confront the jihadists stems more from its hostility toward the Shia and Kurds than its support for Salafi-jihadi philosophy. Moreover Turkey has made no qualms about who its chief adversary is, conducting airstrikes on YPG forces battling ISIS.

While this proves to be a headache for Washington it doesn’t qualify as Pakistan 2.0. In fact, it is the exact opposite scenario. In a Pakistan 2.0 situation, the Turkish government would err on the side of domestic appeasement of the Kurds, allowing them local autonomy much like Iraq does with its Kurds. Turkish intelligence would infiltrate and fund Kurdish movements, using the porous border to support an insurgency against the Shia Syrian state and the Islamic State. Likewise, a beta version of Turkey’s strategy in Pakistan would see the Pakistani state viewing the Pashtun nationalists as a threat to national sovereignty, which must be ruthlessly crushed. They would have fought, rather than funded, the Taliban both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving them no safe space to operate. Instead what we have is Turkey crushing Washington’s defiant ally, the Kurds, and Pakistan stoking the zealotry of the Taliban. Pakistan and Turkey present very different, although equally frustrating dilemmas, for Washington. These dilemmas cannot be surmised into a simple “2.0” theory but instead can be traced to two very different ideas of how a nation should deal with an independent minded people.

Image: “Kurdish PPK Guerilla” (credit: KurdishStruggle/Flickr)



Connor Kopchick

Connor currently works for a government contractor in northern Virginia. He has spent time traveling and studying in India, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and the Arab Gulf states and is interested in all things related to the Muslim world as well as peace and conflict resolution. Connor holds a B.A. in political science from Davidson College. You can connect with him on Twitter @thekops93.
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