What is Washington to do in the dilemma of two friends battling each other on an unwanted new front in Iraq? The surprising answer was given in secret briefings on Capitol Hill last week by Eric S. Edelman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and now under secretary of defense for policy. A Foreign Service officer who once was U.S. ambassador to Turkey, he revealed to lawmakers plans for a covert operation of U.S. Special Forces helping the Turks neutralize the PKK. They would behead the guerrilla organization by helping Turkey get rid of PKK leaders that they have targeted for years.

Edelman’s listeners were stunned. Wasn’t this risky? He responded he was sure of success, adding that the U.S. role could be concealed and always would be denied. Even if all this is true, some of the briefed lawmakers left wondering whether this was a wise policy for handling the beleaguered Kurds who had been betrayed so often by U.S. governments in years past.

The plan shows that hard experience has not dissuaded President Bush from attempting difficult ventures employing the use of force. On the contrary, two of the most intrepid supporters of the Iraq intervention — John McCain and Lindsey Graham — were surprised by Bush during a recent meeting with him. When they shared their impressions with colleagues, they commented on how unconcerned the president seemed. That may explain his willingness to embark on a questionable venture against the Kurds. ~Robert Novak

Let me guess that this will not make Peter Galbraith very happy.  Reihan said a mouthful when he wrote:

An American presence in Kurdistan will be more than a gesture of goodwill; it will likely be very costly.   

What backers of the Kurdish option (i.e., redeployment of U.S. forces to Kurdistan) and opponents have both not really been expecting is for the administration to use force in Kurdistan against the PKK.  Backers of the redeployment idea don’t want to upset the Kurdish political leadership, with whom they sympathise, and opponents or skeptics of the idea (including myself) have assumed that any U.S. military presence in Kurdistan would function as a screen for the PKK, not as a hammer to be used to smash them.  While the proposed action against the PKK may be as potentially explosive as a redeployment to the region (in this case, it will be the peshmerga, not the Turkish army, we will have to worry about more), it probably exposes U.S. forces to fewer threats in the north. 

Some distinctions need to kept in mind.   Novak writes of a venture “against the Kurds,” but it isn’t aimed indiscriminately at “the Kurds” and specifically focuses on one band of Kurds that, officially, the KRG condemns.  An Irishman from the Republic might broadly sympathise with his coreligionists in Ulster and could still refuse to endorse the methods of republican terrorists.  In theory, the KRG attempts to hew to this line of deploring mistreatment of Kurds in Turkey without endorsing terrorism against Turks.  Whether they will hold to that line should joint U.S.-Turkish operations start hitting PKK bases is less clear.  Needless to say, should something in this covert operation go awry and local opinion turns sharply against the U.S. (especially if there should be very many civilian casualties), the government may find that it has no good place inside Iraq’s borders where it can redeploy U.S. forces.

It is all the more remarkable that things have reached this sorry state now, when the Turkish government is probably more favourable to Kurdish rights and the public use of the Kurdish language than at any time in living memory (which isn’t saying much, but still) and when a sizeable number of independent Kurdish deputies were elected to the parliament in the last election.