The Turkish Armed Forces have begun to recruit “professional commandos” as part of a new plan to combat the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The military expects to recruit around 10,000 soldiers, who will be given special training to fight terrorists in mountainous areas.
The move is a significant new development in Turkey’s two-decades-long fight against the PKK. Until now, the military relied on conscripts and regular officers. The new step is also in line with long-term plans to professionalise the armed forces.
Public opinion in Turkey has been increasingly critical of efforts against the PKK, which has escalated its attacks this year and killed at least 67 soldiers. Many Turks say the military should stop using conscripts with inadequate training in the fight against terrorism.
The Turkish Armed Forces constitute the second largest military force within NATO, with around 800,000 personnel. Every Turkish male citizen is obliged to serve for between 12 and 16 months. Regular officers number around 60,000.
The current plans were first disclosed late last month by Turkish Armed Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug during a visit to the Mountain Commando School of Egridir. The general also insisted that a cross-border operation into northern Iraq was needed to crush PKK militants based there.
This week the Turkish Land Forces posted ads on its web page, calling on young candidates to join the military as professional commandos. The so-called “Mountain Lions” will be selected from among Turkish male citizens who are 26 years old or less, have at least a high school diploma, and can meet other conditions.
Those who have already completed their compulsory military service in similar military categories will be preferred. The military is offering significant opportunities for the professional commandos, including a monthly wage of around $1,480 — four times higher than the minimum wage in Turkey. It is also offering housing, full insurance for all family members, and other benefits.
The new system will not put an end to conscription. However, conscripts will now mainly be given internal tasks in security battalions. The plan will be carried out in two phases and will be completed by the end of 2009.
The PKK has fought for an independent country since 1984, causing more than 37,000 deaths in the process. After the 1999 capture of the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the militants are thought to have shifted their bases to areas outside Turkey, and mainly in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Press reports suggest the military has already drawn up plans for setting up a 20km buffer zone inside Iraq to control the approaches into Turkey. Turkish forces would reportedly be stationed in the buffer zone for about four to five years.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the press earlier this week that authorisation of a military incursion into northern Iraq is not on his government’s immediate agenda, but he did not rule it out after the general elections scheduled for July 22nd.