Will Koşaner lead the change in the military?

With a brand new chief of General Staff in place as of yesterday to steer the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) into a new era, I think we have an opportunity to harmonize civilian-military relations in a non-confrontational manner — a manner much better suited to a modern, democratic Turkey.

But do we have reasons to hope that Işık Koşaner will bring change to the Turkish military over the next two years?

I read the transcript of his first speech, delivered during the post’s ceremonial turnover last week. His remarks, which covered both foreign policy issues and domestic problems, boosted my hopes for the genuine and democratic control of the armed forces, yet at times also dashed hopes of a change to European Union standards that Turkey pledged to meet as a candidate country.

Though I have a real problem with senior commanders making comments on Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, I sensed from his speech that both the government and the military is on the same page about the methods and direction of foreign policy, which is undoubtedly a good sign. This shows that National Security Council (MGK) meetings, where both civilian and military leaders discussed the threats and challenges which Turkey faces, are actually working. Unlike previously, the top brass seems to be listening to what the government is saying and lending its support to foreign policy initiatives.

For example, Koşaner said he was worried about Iran’s controversial nuclear program, but advised diplomatic engagement and peaceful tactics to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He warned Israel that Turkish demands must be met after the flotilla attack that killed nine Turks in international waters. As for the Turkey’s rapprochement with its estranged neighbor Armenia, Koşaner expressed regret that discussions had not borne any fruit yet, but said “the normalization process continues,” without forgetting to pay tribute to the Azerbaijanis, of course.

In his unreasonably long speech, the new chief of General Staff pointed out that developments in Afghanistan, where Turkey holds the Kabul Regional Command, were alarming. “The trust of the Afghanis for the international community and multinational force is waning. Afghanistan is a real test for the future of NATO and in the event of failure, the country will be divided, resulting in the rise of international terror impacting countries in the region,” he said. Koşaner also expressed his concern about Iraq’s stability, especially after the US troop draw-down for which he suggested a power vacuum might lead to instability

My problem with Koşaner’s speech is on the parts dealing with the domestic issues which we face today. The most striking one is his emphasis on the information gathering and intelligence activities of the TSK. “As part of its duty, the General Staff headquarters needs to have information on every subject, to gather information from every group and to attend meetings with government officials while in possession of correct information, so as to present a sound opinion to political bodies.”

This certainly recalls some bad memories we have tried hard to forget during the course of the military’s intervention into politics from behind the doors. We all know how the military run covert operations classifying citizens of this country according to their ethnic identity, religious convictions or ideological commitments. It did not shy away from running smear campaigns against the non-Muslim minorities, civic and faith-based groups, nongovernmental organizations and even against democratically elected governments it deemed risky to the national interest.

It was unfortunate that Koşaner chose to repeat his predecessor’s claims regarding a purported asymmetric psychological campaign launched in some circles against Turkish the military and aiming to defame the institution and hurt the regime. I think he was ill-advised to stick to the old mentality of the army in a bid to carve out a portion of the country. During İlker Başbuğ’s miserable two-year period as leader of the armed forces, we saw how the army tried to cover up its mistakes in tactical and operational failures against militants.

Instead of prosecuting those officers who seemingly neglected their duties, the military went after those who leaked the information and threatened media outlets not to publish whistleblower accounts. Başbuğ went even further and tried to defend officers who were accused of serious crimes, like trying to topple the government. He provided them with shelter in officers’ clubs against pending arrest warrants issued by the judges.

I just hope Koşaner learned the lesson from his predecessor’s mistakes. I sincerely want to believe he meant what he said, particularly about the army respecting the rule of law. The military is in a tight-jam, unpopular with much of the public, but by getting rid of its bad apples and by becoming transparent and accountable to civilian authority, it may reverse that opinion.

My last note is about the TSK’s accreditation policy. Because of the critical coverage of TSK, the chief of General Staff of previous years denied media outlets access to press briefings and declined reporters’ requests for comment on issues related to the military. That blanket ban covered this columnist and Today’s Zaman/Zaman newspapers, even though it is the largest media group in Turkey, reaching millions of people every day.

Koşaner allocated a good portion of his speech to the freedom of the press and the need to inform reporters directly. Though he criticized critical coverage of the military regarding pending trials involving active and retired servicemen, he nonetheless emphasized the necessity of having a closer relationship with the media — and a subsequently better-informed public. I’m cautiously optimistic on that note but am awaiting his performance over the next couple of months before I pass judgment on him.

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