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With the Yezidis during the 2003 Iraq war

Extract from my book ‘Dining with al-Qaeda’ – see bottom of chapter

Chapter 17


An Alternative Approach to Military Liberation

We rejoiced at the rising Nile, then it drowned us. — EGYPTIAN PROVERB

Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003.

Hugh Pope and Sagvan Murad in front of Yezidi shrine Sheikh Adi. Lalish, 2003.

A good introduction is an invaluable asset. My fixer, Sagvan Murad, was a young and active member of an ancient religious community called the Yezidis. They numbered about half a million people in Iraq, the bulk of them living south of the front line and under Saddam Hussein’s government control. Murad told me that community leaders on the side that was free, liberated, and developing since 1991, had organized a plan for a smooth takeover of the Saddam-controlled areas. It was his boss in a Yezidi cultural center, a part-time guerrilla chief, who had invited us to accompany them south when Saddam’s control collapsed. This offer of open access to whatever awaited these Yezidis presented what I thought was my best bet for an original story about the northern front of the Iraq War. Here was something that might go right, as opposed to what I felt to be the great wrong of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yezidis might seem obscure, but they were as Iraqi as Kurds, Sunnis, Shias, Assyrians, Marsh Arabs, Sabaeans, and all the other subgroups that made up the country’s twenty-five million people. After all, if the war was on behalf of human rights and democratic freedoms, the Yezidis were the kind of issue it should have been all about.

The Yezidis had princes, castles, fortune-tellers, and an unusual religion. A subgroup of the Kurds—in their eyes, they were the original Kurds—their ancient faith was, to say the least, notably different from any of the surrounding patchwork of religious cultures. Indeed, Yezidi priests were so secretive that their exact doc- trines were a mystery even to most of their adherents. Since they were Kurds, not orthodox Muslims—possibly not Muslim at all—they had been subjected to plenty of discrimination, or, as the Yezidis put it, “seventy-two genocides,” which put them high on the scale of oppression, even in the Middle East’s competitive arena. Mus- lims and others even put out the scandalous rumor that Yezidis worshipped the devil, which was entirely untrue.

As he halfheartedly agreed to my war strategy by satellite telephone, the long-suffering [Wall Street Journal editor] Bill Spindle added the warning that my story would have to be very strong to make it to the front page. I knew I faced a great challenge. Like the rest of the Kurds, the Yezidis were part of the solution, not the problem. They were marginal and inherently unnewsworthy. Still, whatever my story about the Yezidi northern front lacked in confrontational punch, I reckoned I would be able to make up in telling details about one alternative, peaceful method of taking over a chunk of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Early on, Murad had introduced me to the leader of the “free” Yezidis, Prince Kamuran, a nephew of the overall prince who lived in the Saddam-controlled areas. Prince Kamuran dressed the part, wearing a splendid baggy costume in fine stripes and a pale red-and-white head scarf. He had invited me to stay at his palace in the village of Baadra, from where, he said, I could see the lights of Mosul at night or, when the war started, the smoke of high explosives from any bombing by day.

While waiting for our part of the front to become active, I took the prince up on his invitation. My first sight of Baadra seemed to justify the whole journey. In a valley I saw the metal tanks and cinder-block huts of one of the principal smuggling routes for petrol between the government areas and free Iraqi Kurdistan—still open for business, despite the war, the Nowruz holiday, and the fact that night was falling. A steady stream of donkeys was arriving from the hill between us and the Saddam-ruled area with hard plastic jerry cans of fuel strapped to their saddles. We pulled up and soon the driver was sucking on hoses and juggling containers to fill our car. I then bought a whole blue barrel of benzene—fifty-five gallons—and sent it down to Dohuk by pickup truck. It cost me just $85, and now I had my own private gas station.

Tanking up in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2003

Tanking up in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2003

“Thanks very much,” I told Rashid, the cheery Yezidi seller, as he pocketed my money in his baggy khaki pants. He soon brought me back to earth.

“What are you Westerners doing here?” he wanted to know. “Why are you messing around with our people, killing again? Why don’t you stay at home?”

I said I agreed with his sentiments entirely, and drove on to the prince’s palace. On a bluff with its back to Baadra, it overlooked the government-held valley that led to Mosul. It was neither particularly grand nor humble, a one-story, thick-walled structure built around a square courtyard with some trees and the obligatory little English lawn. Prince Kamuran was waiting in the corner of his reception room, next to his Thuraya perched precariously on a windowsill. He greeted us with practiced and roguish ease. Iraqi arak appeared for me, as did some whisky for Murad and Turkish beer for the driver. On the wall was an erratic array of pictures: his princely father, a Yezidi holy peacock, and Richard Nabb, the legendary American colonel whose careful pushes forward did so much to make Iraqi Kurdistan a feasible zone in 1991. There was also his father’s ancient-looking sword, its scabbard tied together with a ragged strip of cloth and its handle bound with dirty string. We sat on an assortment of stuffed armchairs and stools lined up around the edge of the room, which was dominated at one end by a grainy television screen.

Servants arrived with fruit, Pringles and, in the end, two plates of mushy, well- seasoned chicken-and-vegetable stew.

“We always used to kill a lamb for visitors, but then we realized you never ate it,” the prince joked, zapping through the channels of his television.

It was true that such Middle Eastern lambs could turn out to be tough, smelly old sheep, but I kept my counsel.

“When I went to Italy, you know, it was the first time I saw men with flat tummies, without big bellies like we have. You Westerners taught us to eat light. No cholesterol molesterol!”

Our unpromising conversation faltered and crashed as live news streamed onto the screen of the first big U.S. bombing of Baghdad, 240 miles to the south. We all rushed up to the roof, expecting explosions when the U.S. planes and missiles reached the city of Mosul, whose lights glowed silently on the horizon to the south- west. A few antiaircraft shells lofted into the air. We began to get cold in the open. The prince had a better idea.

“This is no good. Let’s go and watch it on TV.”

The bombardment of Baghdad didn’t satisfy my host, however.

“You have to bomb the whole of Iraq to bits before there will be any collapse in the armed forces. Saddam’s terror machine cannot be derailed by anything else!” the prince declared.

Annihilation of the enemy might be the house rule in Mesopotamia, but I couldn’t agree it would do much good. I was sure many innocent people were getting killed and injured in the hail of destruction raining down on the Iraqi capital. In faraway America, a retired U.S. general doing analysis for CNN declared that “it really is a symphony that has to be orchestrated by a conductor.” When Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared to talk about how carefully targets had been chosen, the prince laughed in scornful protest.

“You can’t fight Saddam like that,” he scoffed, and switched to al-Jazeera.

The prince didn’t like al-Jazeera’s anti-U.S. politics, but he did prefer the local perspective. At the height of the bombing, the Qatari satellite channel just let us watch the massive mushroom clouds billowing up into the Baghdad night sky, underlit by new and continuing explosions. I felt sick. It looked like Armageddon.

“Well, here’s the war to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction,” the al- Jazeera correspondent said. Then he added with finely tuned sarcasm, “Clearly, the weapons you are seeing being used tonight are not those of mass destruction.”

I retired to an uneasy sleep under a thick, heavy, cotton-packed duvet. I woke up to take stock of my palace quarters: a thin carpet, a blanket over the unwashed window, a rickety plywood cupboard, hooks to hang clothes on, and, in a nod to the prince’s British tastes, an iron bedstead with sagging springs under the thin mattress. The morning news on television was now nonstop war fever. Back on the roof, I scanned the entirely peaceful front lines below me. The hours ticked by. It was hard to know what to do in this town of about one thousand flat-roofed, mud-brick houses. Apart from watching TV, my only distraction was trying to work out the protocol when the prince’s wife emerged from her private harem in a voluminous purple gown to enjoy a cigarette in the courtyard.

“Baadra is also famous for something else, you know,” Murad suggested. “There’s a fortune-teller here who’s famous throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.”

It was an idea, at least. On the way we toured the old castle of the great Yezidi princes, in ruins and abandoned behind its high walls. Our guide, Saeed, another offspring of the Yezidi princely dynasty, took particular pride in showing the unassuming room where, in 1913, rivals in a struggle for the princedom had smuggled themselves into the citadel dressed as women and had bludgeoned the old prince to death. Despite his tatty leather jacket, Saeed was also a peshmerga officer who in 1991 had engineered the capture of the government’s vast yellow Foreign Legion–style fort overlooking the town. This had brought Baadra into “free” Iraqi Kurdistan. It had been, he boasted, a bloodless advance with ten men, after which the Iraqi soldiers were allowed to walk home with their luggage. Like the primary school next to the prince’s palace, the fort was now overflowing with peshmergas. If the order came to chase a fleeing Iraqi enemy, I supposed they might move forward. Once again, Murad promised that we had been assured of a place in the vanguard.

A short walk away down the ridge, the fortune-teller, Shammu, sat cross-legged on a thin cushion on a worn-out floor covering in his gloomy, flat-roofed house. Thick dark glasses covered his eyes and a colored map of the signs of the zodiac hung above his turbaned head. Large-scale maps of the world torn from newspapers and some sparkly women’s dress material covered parts of the mud wall. The roof was held up by round poplar beams, and I could see stones from the mud roof pushing through the interwoven branches above. A former road-building contractor, Shammu had found his current calling after being exiled for his Communist leanings and sentenced to build highways in Iraq’s western desert. Almost in passing, Murad whispered that his wife had been shot dead by the Baathists in 1981.



Yezidi fortune-teller Shammu of Baadra (right) points up to his star map to read my horoscope before the Iraq War starts. My fixer, Sagvan Murad (left), notes down Shammu’s predictions, inaccurate in my case. He correctly forecast, however, that Saddam Hussein would be successfully ousted, and that this would not solve America’s problems in the Middle East. 2003. (Hugh Pope)

The ex-engineer certainly had a scientiFIc approach. He checked me in as his 10,519th consultation. Many of his star charts had been neatly precalculated in a child’s notebook. He knew how to please by giving me positive prospects for wealth, sexual performance, openness, courage, and prescience. I was beginning to doubt the value of the exercise when my ears pricked up.

“Next year, you will win a prize.”

Such talk gladdens any hardworking journalist’s heart. I slipped him a couple of bars of Turkish chocolate, and soon it became “the big prize.” Months later, I duly applied to a modest competition for foreign correspondents, in which I told myself that I had a chance of recognition for my efforts to warn America of the dangers of the Iraq War. The prize givers didn’t acknowledge the entry. Similarly not as predicted, my child born two months later was a girl, not a boy. I received no great sum of money. I had no “heavy” social life. And instead of being offered a great new job after September, the futility I felt covering the Iraq War made me entirely lose my appetite for writing about the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal. Some eighteen months later I left the paper to build a house on a remote Turkish mountainside.

Clearly I was wrong to hope for much from the little backwater of Baadra. Perhaps the flaws in Shammu’s predictions derived from an alphanumerical calculation based on my name, which has no standard Arabic spelling, and that of my mother, which once again made everyone worry. In any event, he hedged each prediction with an invocation of the divine.

“Your color is red. Your day is Tuesday. Your metal is gold. Your number is nine. And God only knows.”

“How can you be a Communist and say these things?” I asked politely.

“That bit about God is tough for me to say, but if I didn’t, they’d run me out of the village as an unbeliever! It’s the same with my mustache. I want to shave it off, but nobody can accept that. They say it’s a symbol of manhood, of being a Yezidi.”

“As a Marxist, I suppose you don’t accept business from the prince, then.”

“Yes, I am very opposed to him on political grounds. But he pays handsomely for his horoscope. The schoolmaster comes by too. And our local holy man.”

He saved his best line, though, for when I returned later to check something he’d said.

“I knew you’d be back.”

I also did what many of his supplicants had done, it seemed: I asked what the stars had in store for Saddam Hussein. For this he extracted a loose-leaf page closely ␣lled with calculations.

“He will die on April fifteenth, or disappear, believed to have been killed. The West will overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein,” he said. “But, like Osama, his renown will haunt the West for years. Saddamism and bin Ladenism will be strong. From May twentieth, a new Middle East will start being built. There will be two and a half years of chaos in Iraq. Then a new character will arrive who will lead the country into evil. The United States will win a tactical victory but will have many troubles that will lead to the collapse of the American Empire.”

Not much surprising in that—Saddam’s name, perhaps, having the proper Arabic astrological equivalent. What perplexed me, though, was the reaction of colleagues and interviewees over the next few weeks. I had become used to talking little at dinners and get-togethers. I had no daring escapades to boast of from the front lines and my antiwar commentaries were unfashionable. But whenever I let slip that I had the details of Saddam’s horoscope, everyone fell silent, gathered close, and hung on my every word. I was clearly working in the wrong sector of the prediction business.

Perhaps it was partly my status as a Journal correspondent that was dignifying the fortune-teller’s words, even if I was joking. American newspaper readers were also, I felt, beginning to distinguish between the message they received and the messenger. Due to the careful way that mainstream newspapers framed their re- porting about Iraq, paradoxically done partly in order to make readers read the stories, Americans seemed to be losing trust in our traditional, objective prose. Circulation figures were sagging, but the Journal was determined to stay high-minded. Publisher Peter Kann once told me and a group of trainees that, since many subscribers were retired people, we should just imagine we were writing for our parents.

Yet readers still seemed to believe in us reporters on the ground, provided that we were legitimized by representing traditional media institutions. My colleague Farnaz Fassihi experienced this after the war, when she wrote a gloomy assessment of the situation in Baghdad in an e-mail to friends. The substance contained little that she had not written in the pages of the Journal. But precisely because Americans perceived it as the real opinion of a credible correspondent, rather than a newspaper-processed authorized version, the letter whizzed around the Internet and within days became famous as a more real truth.

There was good reason for Americans to believe that Journal reporters knew what they were talking about. I never attempted a major story for the paper before I’d filled a notebook or two with interviews. In the past weeks, I’d made sure I did that for the Yezidis too, especially since it was a good way to keep myself occupied away from the front. On the seventh day of the war, for instance, I tracked down a young Hungarian doctoral student in Dohuk and spent the day discussing her thesis, “Gnostic Elements in Yezidi Mythology.” From the beginning I knew that Eszter Spät and I shared the same mad stamina for digging up the obscure paradoxes that are the warp and weft of the Middle East. The building blocks of early Christian theology, all of which developed in this general area of northern Syria and western Iraq, were as toys in her hands. According to her, Yezidism had incorporated a good deal from these pre-Islamic times. When our discussion turned to whether or not the sum of Yezidism could even be said to be older than today’s Judaism, I invited her to continue our conversation over lunch.

Then Jon Hemmings from Reuters pitched up at the next table and the present imposed itself. He had just come from a hilltop lookout on the front a few miles to the south. He had watched U.S. bombs rip up a village in the plains below, where several rows of Iraqi army barracks stood. He’d filmed this on his digital pocket camera. We played the recording of the rising columns of smoke again and again, somehow disbelieving the reality of the small puffs appearing on the back of his palm-sized machine. At five p.m., al-Jazeera reported an Iraqi claim that fifty local villagers had died in the attack. After the war, Spät visited the bomb craters, saw that they were around military targets, and heard of no civilians killed. In any event, real fighting was clearly imminent on the northern front.

Murad had been phoning our Yezidi guerrilla contacts regularly to make sure they didn’t make their move to take over the Saddam-ruled areas without us. Nevertheless, in the confusion of those days, they did so. Not being with them as they crept or charged through the lines was another strike against the likelihood that my story would make it to the front page. But, as I was now practiced at telling myself, I was no photographer needing to be on the scene. I wouldn’t give up. I could follow in their footsteps and piece the story together.

On the way, Murad and I paid a call on the mecca of the Yezidis, the shrine of Sheikh Adi at Lalish, whose fluted, conical spires are tucked into an idyllic mountain valley near Prince Kamuran’s village of Baadra. I made the halt because Tahsin Beg, Prince of All the Yezidis of the World, had sent word that he would receive us at the shrine. We parked and passed through a low, narrow corridor in a stone wall, headed up some steps, took off our shoes, and found him holding court behind a colonnade. Yezidi men sporting long mustaches with a parting in the middle sat on the thin cushions around the walls. His armed guards milled about the courtyard with all kinds of weaponry strapped to their chests.

Tahsin Beg, Prince of the Yezidis, 2003

Tahsin Beg, Prince of All the Yezidis, 2003. (Hugh Pope)

Tahsin Beg—Beg is a title, the equivalent of Sir in Ottoman times—had inherited his position as a child an extraordinary sixty years before. One result was that he received only a primary school education. Another was that he yearned for freedom, not just from Saddam but from his communal duties. Indeed, while talking to him, I got the impression he had been happiest during a seven-year stint of exile in London’s Kensington High Street, mostly living alone and washing his own dishes. He now sat in state on a green armchair whose sides had split and from which sheets of cardboard were poking out. His dark gray robes were the worse for wear, and his 1970s black Rado watch, with a wide gold rim, was wearing out around the bracelet. His English had become rusty from disuse.

“I am not quite free yet. I can’t be without bodyguards here. I hope when Iraq becomes a democracy that I won’t need them anymore. All our life has been fighting, fighting, fighting. There have been no good times since the revolution against the king in 1958,” he said wistfully. “When my people get freedom, maybe I’ll get freedom too.”

At this moment three of my correspondent colleagues arrived. Luckily they were the three I got on with best, and none worked for American media. But my heart sank at yet another strike against my plan. So much for my hopes of being able to craft an exclusive Yezidi narrative from the northern front.

“Ask me any questions!” commanded Tahsin Beg.

“Some conservative Muslims say you worship the devil,” said the Daily Telegraph’s Damien McElroy. “What do you say to that?”

I was shocked at the bluntness of this question. I knew from Murad and Spät that the Yezidis revere a benign angel they call Azazil, or the Peacock King, and that they get upset that outsiders, notably Muslims, keep identifying him as the devil. As a result, the word for Satan was actually banned by Yezidis. My other Yezidi princely friend, Tahsin Beg’s nephew Kamuran in Baadra, would refer to him only as “so-and-so.” Tahsin Beg, however, was used to dealing with the question.

“He’s not devil, no, sorry, he’s very different from devil. The devil is nothing to do with us,” he said. “We just believe in one God.”

Murad and I then set off to join the newly liberated people of Ain Sifni, a town a few miles to the south. Crossing into no-man’s-land sent a frisson down my spine. From the escarpments above us we were watched by the blank holes of the sand-bagged foxholes in the old Iraqi front line. Then came the old Iraqi checkpoint. Comprehensively rocketed and shot up, there was satisfyingly little left but smashed-up old slogans. The only one still legible was IRAQ IS FOR US ALL, AND LOOKING AFTER IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF US ALL. The front wall of the Baath Party building was already rebranded for the militia that was its new master, the “Party” of Brother Masoud, which ran this part of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the main slogan above the front door, someone had crossed out the “Saddam” part of YES, YES, TO SADDAM and had spray-painted “the Party” in its place. Living in Middle Eastern countries can sometimes be like attending kindergarten for your whole life.

The “Party” and its U.S. backers had taken no chances with their takeover. The streets were still littered with debris from an eight-hour bombardment. Perhaps two dozen Iraqi army defenders died in the surroundings, mostly shot as they fled. But thanks to the preparations by the Yezidis, like establishing secret contacts with major figures in town, there had been minimal fighting. Kurdish guerrillas deterred looting with checkpoints and guarded untouched districts of plush, empty houses once occupied by people close to the regime.

They were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the liberation of the north in 1991, which had been accompanied, as was now happening in the U.S.-controlled south, by widespread stripping of public buildings, reprisals, and disorder. Within four days of the liberation, engineers in hard hats could be seen climbing pylons to fix high-voltage cables snapped by bomb blasts. Elsewhere I met officials who were sorting out the records of telephone line subscriptions. Party officials sifted through documents from government buildings, some of them flattened in the bombing. Sitting cross-legged on thin cushions, making reassuring visits and holding long meetings, they quietly took up the reins of power.

Khatto Baba Sheikh, Ain Sifni, 2003.

With Khatto Baba Sheikh, Ain Sifni, 2003.

We called on Khatto Baba Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the Yezidis. Seated at one end of a long rectangular reception room, he looked impressive: a long, finely combed black-and-gray beard, white robes, and a tightly wound turban. He offered me the seat of honor beside him at the head of the assembly. But he couldn’t speak Arabic very well, and I didn’t get much out of him as everyone bantered about one of the most unusual weeks in the history of the town.

Murad had a question. In proper fashion, he wanted to check with the religious leader whether he had any objection to his smaller community of Yezidis from free Iraqi Kurdistan going forward and proselytizing the much greater number who had been stuck under the regime of Saddam Hussein. One of his hesitations was that the much-oppressed Yezidis are highly reticent when it comes to revealing religious matters.

“As long as everything is done correctly, go ahead!” Baba Sheikh replied, grinning broadly through his great mustache. “We kept things secret because there was no freedom, we were living in a bad atmosphere . . . Now we want everyone to see what’s going on in the world. Let them all buy satellite televisions. I’m going to buy one right now!”

One of those responsible for the previous lack of freedom was sitting uncomfortably on one edge of the majlis gathering in Baba Sheikh’s reception room. Hazem Haydar was one of the 100 to 150 former Baath Party officials in the town and had taken refuge with the religious leader. I asked to see him on his own. In a guest room we sat on parallel iron bedsteads and chatted. His eyes, constantly seeking reassurance, showed that he could hardly believe his luck would last. He had not been killed. When he surrendered his gun, he had been given a receipt. It was in his native Kurdish, which he had never seen written down. Now for the first time in his life he was meeting a foreigner and using the musty English he’d learned at school and kept on life support by buying copies of Saddam’s Iraq Daily. What could be next?

“Did you expect to survive?” I asked.

“Our kinsmen from the north have changed, with the help of Britain and America. We are with the change.” He lowered his voice to complain about how Baathism had also changed under pressure from the West, dropping its secularist beginnings so that Saddam Hussein could claim to be a grand “Islamic” leader. “You know, Saddam closed all the restaurants and bars serving alcoholic drinks. That’s one thing I can’t wait to see open again.”

We drove on through Ain Sifni. Shops were gradually reopening, and a few cars full of visitors or relatives cruised the streets like tourists from the already liberated areas to the north. It was sobering to see how Arabized this Kurdish town looked. There was not a single sign in Kurdish, as had now become the norm in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was uplifting, too, to see how quickly shopkeepers get fresh fruit and vegetables back onto their stalls after a conflict.

We passed by a school where many Iraqi army soldiers had been hiding for the last week before they ran away. Although the American pilots could see them there and circled overhead, they did not bomb them, which would certainly have killed plenty of civilians. Indeed, in the liberated areas that I toured, U.S. warplanes seemed mostly to have hit what they aimed at, flattening barracks and party buildings. The Foreign Legion–style forts were all left looking as though some giant had taken a huge bite out of each one, scattering crumbs of stones everywhere.

The trouble for U.S. policy was that this technical proficiency was not part of any overall plan to sort out the huge psychological and other dysfunctions of Iraqi state and society. Then there was the collateral damage. One fifteen-foot-deep crater in Ain Sifni was dug by a bomb dropped by an American pilot aiming at a Toyota pickup truck with a gun mounted on the back. The Toyota was now a pile of burned and twisted metal, the engine block lying dozens of yards away. The Baathist who had sought asylum in the Yezidi sheikh’s home told me that a local Arab had been using it to shoot at the American planes. When the planes closed in to bomb, this man wisely hid behind a wall to save himself. But the explosion torched at least three cars, wrecked four or five houses, and sprayed shrapnel in a radius of fifty yards or more. It had ripped the living room wall off the nearest house, killing a man and blinding his wife. People milled about, poking and pulling at things.

“First they bomb us, then they come and take photographs of us,” Murad overheard someone saying as we left the site.

Eventually I caught up with the guerrilla leader who had promised and failed to take me along with the first wave of liberators of Ain Sifni, Khayri Namo Sheikhani, a forty-five-year-old Yezidi activist from Dohuk.

“How come the takeover was such a mess elsewhere, and so smooth here?” I asked.

Down the road in Mosul, there was already virtual anarchy despite a far greater U.S. presence.

“When we arrived, we knew who was who, we gathered people together straight-away. We told them to stay in their jobs, that we’d pay officials’ salaries, and that they shouldn’t steal public property,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve already been living liberated lives nearby for twelve years. We can show them how to live this new, democratic life. In southern Iraq, they have no such thing. All they know is Saddam, religion, and now the U.S. military.”

I drove with Sheikhani to the settlement of Babir, north of Mosul, abandoned by Iraqi troops and therefore liberated. Babir was one of Saddam’s notorious “collective towns,” where any Kurds who might support the never-ending Kurdish rebellions were resettled from their ancestral villages in the mountains. In theory, all Saddam’s army had to do to control them was to park a tank at the end of each unpaved street on the grid.

We drove toward Babir in convoy on a smooth dirt track through fields of wheat. I sat cramped in the front cab of a Toyota pickup truck with Sheikhani’s Kalashnikov jammed between my knees. Behind us, a pickup mounted with speakers used for wedding parties pumped out a song by the famous Turkish Kurd musician Sivan Perwer. Children playing outside the town were clearly ready to embrace the new order. As soon as they saw our little convoy they raced toward us, waving little flags on bamboo poles and sticks made of anything they could find in the yellow color of “the Party”—furnishing fabrics, sheets, tablecloths, and clothing. Through the loudspeakers, one of Sheikhani’s men stirred them up with shouts of, “This is the day of freedom! This is the fruit of all the years of fighting!”

When we reached the town, Sheikhani and his lieutenants got out to greet the notables. The houses were all walled-off, one-story miniature compounds built of gray concrete blocks. In no order whatsoever, we advanced on foot, followed by the cars, into the town’s main open space, a kind of dustbowl in the center. A few hundred people clamored around us. All were Yezidis. Sheikhani and Fariq Farouq, an official from “the Party,” climbed onto the back of the truck. They were greeted by chaotic, frenzied shouting.

“Who won? Who won? Barzani is the winner!” the crowd chanted, on cue. “The Party is our leader and Masoud is our president!”

Sheikhani and Farouq looked on indulgently.

Sheikhani then began the first political speech that any of them had ever heard live in Kurdish. He told them that the Baath regime was finished and that Arab rule was history. He talked of the many sacrifices of the struggle.

Farouq from “the Party” took the microphone and thanked God that they were liberated, reminded them they had been persecuted for thirty-five years, pointed out that the Baath had lied to them saying they were Arabs, not Kurds, and told them that Masoud Barzani called the Yezidis the original Kurds. He named a famous Yezidi martyr for the cause. Rounds of hearty clapping greeted these sentiments. Then Farouq moved onto less familiar territory.

“Freedom should not be for some, but for all—Kurds, Arabs, Turcomans, Christians, Muslims. We are all Iraqis. We want to work together for this land. We are asking for democracy, brotherhood. Even the Arab people say, ‘Long Live Barzani!’ ” he said.

The mention of Arabs earned him a sudden drop in applause.

“We will forgive those Baathists who didn’t do evil. We have to respect them. We want the rule of law, human rights, the rights of minorities, which we have established in Kurdistan,” Farouq said.

I checked what the man beside me, Edris, thought. No, he wasn’t interested in cohabiting with Arabs. He saw them solely as oppressors who had robbed him of his land and who had occupied his village. His only priority was to rebuild the village and, if he had a political outlook at all, to live in free Kurdistan. Right now, he never wanted to see an Arab again.

I turned to the people around Edris to ask if a pluralistic future was really so impossible. But I could get no sense out of people who had been under so much stress and who had no educational equipment to articulate their new freedom and excitement. We jostled, we shouted, we joked and laughed about silly things. I asked them about the Yezidi gerîvan, the special white undershirt with a rounded neck cut open by a specially chosen relative, and half the men started unbuttoning their shirts to show me the thin fabric of the garment. I parried invitations for tea, dinner, to stay the night.

“Do you have a picture of Bush? I want to kiss it!” one man begged me.

“Give my love to Mr. Bush and . . . what is his name? What is his name? Mr. Blair!” shouted another into my ear.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” shouted one man as I fought through the crowd to get back into the car.

Back in Dohuk, I watched the big-screen TV in the hotel lobby as it showed the live action from Baghdad’s Paradise Square, right in front of the Palestine Hotel, where I always used to stay. I remembered how exactly a year before I’d seen them put a new statue of Saddam up on the new roundabout reservation, wrapped in sheets as one of his birthday presents. Now a U.S. soldier pulled a noose around the statue’s neck. A U.S. armored vehicle took up the strain. It bent down, fell forward, bounced groggily, and was then dragged to the ground.

We were tuned to Abu Dhabi TV, and the announcer, a good Arab, was in shock at this show of disrespect.

“The body has come down, but the feet are firmly stuck in place. Let’s see whether that is an omen for the future!” he declaimed.

Soon we were watching crazy kids dragging the head around for rides and hitting it with their shoes. The camera panned back to take in the whole square. The TV announcer was right about it not being so easy to extirpate all signs of Saddam. You couldn’t see it on TV, but I knew that each one of those white columns around where the statue stood had the initials S.H. molded into its capital.

Baghdad was now swarming with embedded correspondents from the Wall Street Journal. I could go home. I had one last page to fill in my notebook. Bill Spindle, valiantly struggling to get my alternative narrative of the conquest onto the front page, suggested that the first paragraph would be livelier if the commander had some kind of Yezidi fetish that he took along with him to liberate the Yezidi zone. I had long stopped resenting such requests. They always turned up something new. But it did mean more delays, and I began to suspect the worst for my story.

I caught up with Sheikhani and maneuvered toward the question on my editor’s mind.

“Did you carry any Yezidi objects with you when you were on your way to liberate your compatriots?”

The former dermatologist spoke good English, but it took some time to explain the Western concept of lucky charms.

“No, I don’t have anything like that,” Sheikhani said.

“So you don’t wear the gerîvan?” I asked, the only Yezidi thing I could think of.

“Oh, no, I never wear that.” He laughed at such an absurd, anachronistic idea.

“Didn’t you wish you had one that night when you walked over the mountain? It was pretty cold, wasn’t it?”

“Not at all, it’s spring. It was normal. Remember, I was a peshmerga for years.”

I had another go. “So when you were a peshmerga, you never carried anything special with you at all?”

“I always used to carry a bag of medicines. I was the peshmerga doctor,” he said.

“Did you take any medicines with you on your night march, then?

“Yes, I took a small bag of medicines, for old times’ sake.”

A few days later, the Journal’s front page passed on my report on the peaceful change of power in our corner of Iraq. Spindle explained that editors felt triumphant events elsewhere overshadowed the Yezidi angle. I was beyond arguing and could do nothing about what I suspected was the last flaw in my Yezidi tale: Although the U.S. invasion made the Yezidis’ success possible, and U.S. warplanes were a critical backup for the takeover of Ain Sifni, no Americans were obviously involved in the narrative for readers to identify with. By then I was out of the country, not greatly proud of my achievements but pleased that the foreign pages had published my last report at length and delighted to have survived to see my family and friends again.

A few years later, Murad rose to somewhere miraculously appropriate for his high standard of traditional politeness, becoming acting head of protocol for President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, photographed behind the scenes of world summits with President Bush’s arm draped around his shoulders or being kissed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The Yezidis’ fate was less happy. They suffered along with other minorities like the Christians, and lots of ordinary Iraqis, as the United States dumped well-laid American plans for running the country. Sunni Muslim extremists used the chaos to engineer a steady campaign of murders of Yezidis. One of the worst was in April 2007, when, apparently in revenge for the Yezidis’ stoning of a Yezidi girl betrothed to a Muslim boy, Muslim militants stopped a bus, pulled off twenty-two with identity cards identifying them as Yezidi, and shot them dead. Ethnic cleansing forced many Yezidi families to flee their homes. An al-Qaeda– style quadruple truck bombing in August 2007 killed another two hundred Yezidis in villages and small towns in my eccentric friend Hussein Sinjari’s tribal district of Sinjar, a formerly Saddam-ruled area east of Mosul. Tahsin Beg went on to survive at least three attempts on his life.


See on Amazon.com


Excerpted from


By Hugh Pope

Thomas Dunne Books, 2010

pp 272-286.

When U.S. General Petraeus Ruled in Mosul

How Iraqi Professor
Overcame Doubts
To Trust a General

Mr. Jomard, Strong
Opponent of Hussein
And U.S. Policy,
Saw a ‘Fellow Human’


Staff Reporter

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Page A1, 3 November 2003

MOSUL, Iraq — “Don’t expect me to go on television to express gratitude,” declared Iraqi historian Jazeel Abd al-Jabbar al-Jomard.

U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein, a man Mr. Jomard despised, and helped rebuild the scholar’s looted Mosul University, Iraq’s second-largest. None of that has changed the short, thickset, 51-year-old professor’s vehement opposition to Washington’s policy and actions in the Middle East.

But over the course of six months, a patient American general and his forces in the 101st Airborne who oversee this section of Iraq’s north have slowly managed to win Mr. Jomard’s trust. “I learned to see these people as my friends … once I realized that, as individuals, they had nothing to do with U.S. policy,” he said.

How Mr. Jomard made his decision to work with the occupying forces offers a window on one of the most urgent challenges America faces in Iraq: getting Iraqis to actively cooperate in the face of an increasingly effective resistance movement. The U.S. suffered its deadliest day in Iraq since March 23 Sunday. The toll included 16 soldiers killed when their Chinook helicopter crashed west of Baghdad, apparently shot down. (See related article1.) Last week anti-U.S. forces added car bombs to their attacks on the reformed Iraqi police, the most prominent collaborators with the U.S. occupation and a key to any future U.S. exit strategy from Iraq.

Any form of collaboration carries the danger of being targeted by resistance fighters. Last Thursday, thousands of leaflets were distributed in Baghdad threatening to kill all who “have sold their souls to work with the Americans and the Jews.” They also said, “We know for certain who you are,” and were signed by the Fedayeen, an organization loyal to Mr. Hussein.

Such pressure causes many Iraqis who want to cooperate to waver and crumple in places where the U.S. occupation isn’t as adroit as it has been in Mosul. Iraqi assistants to U.S. Army personnel often wear dark glasses to avoid being recognized. A translator working for U.S. journalists justifies his job to friends by saying he is brainwashing the Americans.

Legacy of Opposition

Opposition to foreign intervention comes naturally to Mr. Jomard, scion of a prominent Mosul family that was a longtime nationalist opponent of Iraq’s old British-backed monarchy. When the king was toppled in a bloody 1958 coup, Mr. Jomard’s father became foreign minister for the first six months of the new republican regime that followed.

An expert in Christian Europe’s medieval crusades against the Islamic east, Mr. Jomard spent several years of doctoral study in Scotland and is familiar with the West. Though unhappy with Mr. Hussein’s regime, he expected no good to come from the U.S. invasion.

He remains offended by what he views as a U.S. failure to prevent Israel from occupying Palestinian territories. He knows that Washington supported Mr. Hussein during his murderous 1980s prime. He deeply resents the way the U.S. left Mr. Hussein in power after devastating Iraq’s infrastructure in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and then led the effort to impose crippling sanctions on the country.

“I swear that even Iraqi ants were affected by those sanctions,” says Mr. Jomard, who drives a battered 1980 Datsun with a dashboard held together by tape. “Before, they used to stay in the garden of my house. Now they’ve even reached my bedroom, looking for things to eat.”

The university that Mr. Jomard loved, a sprawling campus of stark concrete buildings and dusty hills, was overcome in the chaos that descended on Mosul after the U.S. forced Mr. Hussein’s ouster on April 9. Traffic jams formed at the campus gates as armed looters loaded up everything their cars could carry. They even stole one of the gates.

Mr. Jomard’s initial contacts with the U.S. military didn’t foster trust or cooperation. He had joined up with other leading Mosul figures that day and gone to ask the newly arrived U.S. Marines for protection. He found the officer sent out to talk to the group to be young, arrogant and interested only in the safety of his own troops.

A Sunni Muslim from the majority of Mosul’s 1.7 million people, Mr. Jomard felt the Western reporters attached to the U.S. military were interested only in the local Christian priests in the group.
“I felt like I was being confronted with a relic of the British occupation a century ago,” Mr. Jomard says.

New Attitude

The next day he joined a group of local judges to again visit the base the Marines had established at the airport and appeal for American troops to get a grip on the city. “It wasn’t useful. The Americans seemed irritated by us,” Mr. Jomard says. “I went home and never went back.”

Mosul endured two rough weeks, including a gunfight involving U.S. troops in which a dozen local people were killed. Then the 101st Airborne arrived to relieve the small Marine force.

With the 101st came Gen. David H. Petraeus, the division’s commander and, Mr. Jomard says, a new attitude. Gen. Petraeus, a veteran officer who directed peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and has a doctorate from Princeton University in international relations, is a fervent advocate of nation-building. He rammed through a one-month program to pull Mosul together. His men forced the pace on local elections, some of the first in occupied Iraq. Pinned to the map in his war room was the motto: “We are in a race to win over the people.”

“We try to be an army of liberation, not occupation. It’s very hard to pull off,” the general says. “The only way you can win respect is individually.”

Gen. Petraeus was one of the most intensive users of money seized from the former regime, a program in which his officers paid more than $26 million directly to Iraqis for myriad projects to get the region going. Beneficiaries included not just the university, but hospitals, irrigation systems and even an asphalt factory. “Money is ammunition,” the general says.

Under U.S. supervision, neighborhoods chose a local electoral college of 270 people, which in turn choose a 24-man provincial council in early May. This body soon elected Mr. Jomard to the post of university vice chancellor, even though he hadn’t put himself forward as a candidate and was boycotting the U.S.-backed group.

His colleagues pressed him to accept the post. He remained reluctant. “I told them, it’s very difficult” to work with a foreign occupier, says Mr. Jomard. “But they played with my emotions, my sense of duty. For us, the looting and chaos in Mosul was a tragedy, spiritually and physically.”

Although he took the appointment, he kept his job teaching history, so he could leave the administrative post at any time. He also tried to maintain a psychological distance. “I told myself it would not be dealing with the invader. I would never be a collaborator.”

Reaching an Understanding

But he began to discover a new face to the U.S. occupation. When the officer in charge of his area passed by, Mr. Jomard told him about three gates hanging off their hinges that the university couldn’t fix. Two days later, U.S. Army engineers arrived to repair them.

Mr. Jomard, who had grown up with rhetoric about Arab solidarity, had hoped for aid from the Arab world. But little materialized. Two Persian Gulf states sent gifts, but one included a TV crew who asked him to sing the praises of its generous prince. “When they asked me to sit in front of a banner to do the interview, I had to refuse,” Mr. Jomard says bitterly.

Wealthy local families gave about $50,000 to the university, hoping to get it back on track before exam time so that students wouldn’t have wasted a year’s study. The U.S. officers channeled in nearly $1.4 million, according to Col. Will Harrison, in charge of the 101st’s relationship with the university. Much of this early cash came from Iraqi state funds or assets seized from Mr. Hussein’s regime. In the longer term, U.S. aid coming through American university-run programs is also on its way.

Mr. Jomard was impressed by the military’s efficient generosity. It helped that Col. Harrison accepted the professor’s sometimes prickly behavior, and made no demands for public expressions of gratitude. Both men were comfortable with the sort of back-channeling and lobbying that was sometimes necessary.

The colonel, for instance, furthered the university’s cause behind the scenes by bringing Mosul administrators and Baghdad officials together with the help of the 134 helicopters in his unit, the 159th Aviation Brigade. Such communication was critical to smoothing over post-Hussein staffing and other organizational issues, since laws still on the books keep Iraq a highly centralized state.

The ebullient 44-year-old pilot, who hails from New York, is responsible for all matters concerning higher education in Mosul as well as the brigade’s 2,000 men. He typically spends two hours of his long days on university matters and has assigned captains and lieutenants to pay similar attention to each of the institution’s 19 faculties. They, too, have come to terms with Mr. Jomard’s determination to build an image of independence for his academy.

Mr. Jomard “only lets us on campus because we’re nice,” jokes Maj. Mike Shenk, a U.S. officer from the 101st Airborne and one of Col. Harrison’s deputies in the 159th. He was passing by the university after dropping off yet more cash for items such as office furniture, telephone exchanges, computers, air conditioners, refrigerators and ceiling fans. Returning Maj. Shenk’s warm smile, Mr. Jomard acknowledged a fondness for the American.

That didn’t stop him from pulling Maj. Shenk aside that day to ask the 101st to remove two U.S. Army lookouts posted on the engineering faculty roof. Mr. Jomard says he understood their need to watch a road in front of the university, where attackers had twice hit U.S. patrols. But the dean of engineering was furious and the soldiers’ presence on campus could trigger student protests. Two days later, they were gone.

Mr. Jomard remains suspicious of the Americans. He admits he even got caught up in popular outrage that swept through Mosul after a baseless rumor suggested that Israel was taking advantage of the U.S. presence to buy local land. “What causes fear is the size of America. … We might just be a little part of a much bigger policy,” he says. “I have no desire to find myself at my age like the Palestinians, suitcases in my hand and my family on the road.”

Trust Builds Dividends

Rising local anger forced a United Nations agency and some foreign nongovernmental organizations to leave town. The antiforeigner attitudes put constant pressure on Mr. Jomard.

“One or two professors said that Jazeel, who we thought was working for the interests of the people, is now shaking hands with the enemy,” Mr. Jomard says. “I feel that I am shaking hands as a fellow human.”

Worse was to come. Mr. Jomard was indirectly told by the anti-U.S. forces to stop cooperating with the Americans. He dismissed the threat, hoping he would be protected by his reputation as an observant Muslim known for popular public lectures on Saladin — the Kurdish prince from Iraq who drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem.

“I, too, believe the American occupation should end, but if they leave now, everyone will be killed on the streets, there’ll be civil war,” Mr. Jomard says.

His own behind-the-scenes lobbying with occupation forces has paid dividends. When the Baghdad Coalition Provisional Authority, the central U.S. occupation power, ordered the sacking of all senior members of the former Baath Party, it would have crippled some of the university’s departments. Mr. Jomard and the chancellor pressed for the best of the 130 to be kept on. The 101st Airborne fought his case in Baghdad and won a reprieve that kept the teachers in class.

One day during the summer, Col. Harrison stumbled into a confrontation with some angry graduates demanding jobs that had been promised by the former regime. He found Mr. Jomard at his side, “picking them out by name, and telling them, ‘I didn’t educate you to talk like this,’ ” Col. Harrison remembers. Mr. Jomard, in turn, recalls with amazement Col. Harrison’s calm handling of provocative, anti-American questions.

Trust grew to the point that when a much-delayed graduation day came around in October, the university faculty did the once unthinkable: They invited a uniformed Col. Harrison and a U.S. civilian administrator into the semicircle of dignitaries that bestowed the top degrees. “It was wonderful,” Col. Harrison says.

The moral juggling act thrust upon Mr. Jomard by the occupation has led him to rethink his former view of history as black and white, cause and effect. “Sometimes a man can be caught up in events that are more powerful than himself,” he says.


Uygurs in China III

Hugh Pope

Sons cover thumbnail The third section from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world that relates my experiences with and conditinos of the Uygurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)



An elephant can crush an ant with one footstep. But an

ant inside an elephant’s trunk can madden it to death.

—Uygur proverb


streaming through the pointed archways of a bare room on the roof of

the Emin mosque. The young Uygur lovingly watched the knife turn in

his hand, and conversation came to a halt. Distant donkeys brayed as

they pulled carts back from the vineyards that carpeted the ancient oasis

town of Turfan with a luxuriant green…

View original post 5,329 more words

Uygurs in China II

Hugh Pope

51Q02AWQ0EL._SS128_SH35_ Second posting of Uygur-related extracts from

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19, 41-171 (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2005)



I was never carried away by the valuable Chinese gifts of gold,

silver, silk and sweet words. I did not forget how many Turks

who had been deceived by such things had died, how many

had been forced under the Chinese yoke.

—Stone inscription by Bilge Kagan, an 8th century AD

Turkic ruler in what is now Mongolia


Istanbul, Isa Alptekin, the late leader of the Uygur Turks of China, never

imagined that he could free his people by force. The grand old man of

this large but little-known Turkic minority always spoke the language of

passive resistance, as did his much better-known comrade in…

View original post 5,053 more words

Uygurs in China I

Hugh Pope

Sons cover thumbnail The first of four Uygur-related extracts from my book on the Turks and the Turkic world.

Hugh Pope, SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World, pp. 13-19


God Most High caused the Sun of Fortune to rise in the

Zodiac of the Turks; he called them ‘Turk’ and made them

Kings of the Age. Every man of reason must attach himself to

them, or else expose himself to their falling arrows.

—MAHMUT OF KASHGAR, author of the

first Turkish encyclopedia, 11th century


surprises, my teleprinter shuddered into action at the Istanbul bureau of

Reuters news agency. A colleague in Beijing was sending a message:

members of an ethnic group called the Uygurs, of whom I had never

heard, were demonstrating in the streets of Urumqi, capital of the

northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang…

View original post 2,259 more words

What Taliban government looked like in 1998

This story resulted from an unexpected week in Kabul in 1998, courtesy of the Taliban. I was always surprised that the Journal agreed to publish this piece, but none of us I think had quite realised the genius of Osama bin Laden’s successful drive to prevent the Taliban government from seeing through its efforts to normalise with the West.

Reality Check:
Afghanistan’s Taliban,
For Better or Worse,
Seems There to Stay

The Cleric-Warriors
Tighten Grip With Brutal
Tactics — And Better Roadways

The Group’s Own Web Site

By Hugh Pope
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

3 September 1998
The Wall Street Journal

KABUL, Afghanistan — Along the rubble-strewn streets of this blasted capital and across the war-cratered Afghan countryside, the Taliban militia is finally getting down to the business of running a nation — as only it can.

After 20 years of civil war, and two years since taking the capital, the Taliban just last month captured the largest remaining cities held by its opponents. So the cleric-warriors now have a chance to further their crusade to impose the strictest Islamic rule in the world.

Having cowed people with public floggings and executions, the black-turbaned seminarians keep control by patrolling Kabul in four-door pickups and working networks of neighborhood informants. The militia has disarmed much of the populace: Now only its fighters are allowed to bear arms, a stark contrast with the past in towns that once bristled with private weapons.

At the same time, the Taliban is trying to revive credible government institutions — such as the central bank-rendered moribund after years of war, and is soliciting privatization bids via the World Wide Web. It also is waging a diplomatic battle to gain international acceptance. The outcome of these efforts, both at home and abroad, could sway the balance of power in one of the world’s most troubled regions and determine the pace of development of Central Asia’s vast oil reserves.

The West has long balked at recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, citing human-rights abuses, the country’s flourishing drug trade, and the Taliban’s role in harboring terrorists. These objections were sharpened after last month’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S.’s retaliatory missile attack on terrorist training camps here — headquarters and haven, said U.S. officials, to Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.

This may strengthen a purist faction within the Taliban that rejects interaction with the outside world, says Barnett Rubin, director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This all happened at a time when they were about to have a big campaign for international recognition,” he says. “Now they’ve been targeted as a pariah state.”

Yet it now appears almost certain the West will have to live with a Taliban-run Afghanistan for a long time — even if most governments — other than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — still recognize the ousted administration of Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Five miles from Kabul stands a modest outpost of the Taliban’s new order. Here, where a main highway plunges down from the Kabul plain into a jagged mountain gorge, state customs officers have moved back into a toll booth at a checkpoint marked by upended artillery-shell cases and a speed bump made of an old tank track. Road-tax inspectors say toll income is up fivefold over the past year at this and other points. And because highwaymen know well the severe price the Taliban government exacts on lawbreakers, roads are sufficiently free of crime for traders to safely move goods for the first time in years.

“Traffic has really increased, maybe to 200 vehicles a day,” says Mohammed Hashim, a tax inspector. “Since the Taliban came to power it has been possible to travel day and night, too. Things are going much better for merchants.”

In Kabul, the economy shows its first stirrings of life in years. Markets are again filled with supplies for weaving rugs, Afghanistan’s signature export before opium and heroin took over. (Publicly, the Taliban decries the drug trade, but the business continues largely unfettered.) The government is at last trying to take over municipal functions, long the domain of foreign-aid agencies, which the Taliban is now seeking to curtail or control.

In the government, bureaucrats are starting to repave roads and rebuild electricity lines wrecked in the 1979-89 war against the Soviets. In Jalalabad, a province east of Kabul, aid workers report a 25% increase in the number of former refugees returning to their homes this year. Crops have been good and are able to move to market. The cost of trucking goods to and from Kabul has halved in the past year. The Khyber Pass to Kabul from Pakistan is clogged with trucks.

The Taliban, which now controls three-quarters of Afghanistan, has overcome obstacles such as the country’s mountainous terrain and its many warring tribes. From the late 1970s to the late ’80s, the Mujahideen Muslim guerrillas fought a Soviet-installed government and the Russian troops who backed them; after routing the Russians, the Mujahideen battled amongst themselves; since 1994, the Taliban has battled the Mujahideen.

At the heights of what remains of the official Afghan economy, the 31-year-old minister of mines and industries, Al-Haj Mawlawi Ahmad Ahmadjan, is putting together contracts to privatize any enterprise he thinks can be viable. Expatriate Afghans are the main hope; among other steps being taken to reach them, the Taliban has put up a page on its World Wide Web site, http://www.taliban.com [http://www.taliban.com/], that lists 25 operations open to investment. Among them: cement factories, shoe factories, textile mills and a steel works.

An onyx mine in the south has been reopened after 20 years by fixing up some old machines, Mr. Ahmadjan says. Berite, coal, mica, marble and chromite mines are next on the list. “When we got here to Kabul, we started from zero,” he says. “And with the conquest of the northern part of the country, peace will come.”

It remains hard to work out exactly where the Taliban is going. The one-eyed, 36-year-old Mullah Mohammad Omar, the clergyman-general who is the Taliban’s Commander of the Faithful, is secretive. He has been obsessed with total victory in the blitzkrieg led by his seminarians, and he keeps moving men from post to post. Government ministers, often sent to lead offensives from the front, sometimes appear innocent of modern economics.

The first Taliban governor of the central bank is missing, presumed dead in battle last year. His latest successor, AlHaj Mollah Mahmad Ahmadi, struggles to define why the currency halved in value last year: The word “inflation” means little to him. The central bank hasn’t yet issued its own currency, still dependent on Afghan banknotes distributed up to now by the Taliban’s ousted enemies. “The economy, foreign investment, it will all be on the basis of Islam,” Mr. Ahmadi says, shifting his bare feet under him onto his chair.
But other members of the Taliban economic team profess a more conventional approach to economic management. At the Ministry of Finance, deputy minister Mallawi Najibullah Haqqani, 29, aims to “do as other countries do. We want to borrow money from the World Bank and other institutions.” Mr. Ahmadjan, the minister of mines, favors letting private enterprise take the lead in development. “We know that a person works on his own land better than any government organization,” he says.

Though Afghanistan remains an economic backwater, the Taliban has a chance to become a player in one of the biggest business stories of the decade: the development of the Central Asian energy industry, a keen concern of the U.S. government. If peace returns to the entire country, it is a logical route for a pipeline envisioned for getting neighboring Turkmenistan’s natural gas to market. Running from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and on to Pakistan, the line would probably require nearly $2 billion in investment. Two groups are vying to build it: Bridas Corp. of Argentina, which has built a palatial compound in Kabul to impress the Taliban, and a U.S.-Saudi consortium led by Unocal Corp. of the U.S.

“We have no preferred consortium at this stage,” Mr. Ahmadjan says. But a deputy to the Taliban’s minister of culture and information says he thinks the Unocal group may be favored because it has better resources and equipment.

Unocal executives say that the key to the pipeline is funding-and that there can be no funding without international recognition of the Taliban. That, in turn, will depend mainly on whether the Taliban can turn the stunning recent effectiveness of its war machine, drawn mainly from the Pushtuns, Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, into a truly national government that can embrace ethnic Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and others.

In the meantime, the Taliban is compelling allegiance to its puritanical brand of Islam with spectacles of punishment such as one that was put on this month, on a typical sabbath Friday here in the capital. The event drew several thousand youths, Taliban militants and a balcony of veiled women to the former national soccer stadium. First, workers built a bonfire of seized drugs. Then, a Taliban youth gave a man who had drunk alcohol 80 strokes with a broad strap. Finally, a burglar was anesthetized, and after he fell on his back near midfield, had his right hand surgically removed by three doctors in masks of pale-blue gauze.

“People should come here not for fun, but for a lesson,” a Taliban preacher intoned as the punishments began. His admonitions were to no avail: As the hand came off, the women jumped up from their seats to peer through their grill-fronted burqas, and the male spectators stormed onto the field for a better look.

But gauging the loyalty of the people to the Taliban is difficult, partly because outsiders are banned from private Afghan homes, and men, such as this reporter, from talking to Afghan women. In the countryside, the Taliban has made little ideological impact on people’s daily lives, largely because villagers already lead the simple lifestyle preached by the Taliban.

Reports of public beatings of women judged improperly dressed by Taliban militants are growing rare, say independent observers. “Things have got much better. The atmosphere of oppression is much less,” said Mary MacMakin, a Boston-born, 37-year resident of Kabul who regularly argues with the Taliban as they attempt to control the activities of her small aid group.

Murza Muhammad Isa Kunduzi, a big currency dealer in Kabul, complains about having to wear a long beard, frustrated like many other city men by this and other Taliban rules. But one day last month, he was smiling because the Afghan currency had jumped 10% on news of the latest Taliban victories.

“People are satisfied with the Taliban. The most important thing in a country is security,” he says. “There was no electricity for five years. Now we have it night and day. Two years ago, people were armed to the teeth protecting us here. Now we pay tax and just have one guard.”

Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

A story from Azerbaijan before the fall of the Soviet Union, when everything seemed possible and old ties were suddenly being rediscovered across borders that had been closed for 70 years. I even met then disgraced Haidar Aliyev in exile in his hometown of Nakhichevan, where he served me breakfast in a light tracksuit and predicted correctly that the then regime in Baku was only hanging on thanks to support from Moscow.

Wednesday 31 October 1990

Azerbaijan looks to ‘blood brother’ Turkey

Hugh Pope, in Baku, finds a people in search of independence rediscovering their roots.

azerbaijan yellow

The grizzled Azerbaijani in the airport car park leaned forward to display his Grey Wolf lapel pin and whispered in Azeri Turkish: “Are you one of the pan-Turkists from Turkey?” It was an odd welcome to Azerbaijan, the first sign of a web of conspiracies, trade and bloodbrother love that is starting to bind the Soviet republic to Turkey as it moves to greater independence.

For years, such emotional bonds have been suppressed on both sides of the short Transcaucasia border Azerbaijanis share with Turkey. Throughout the Cold War, Nato-member Turkey feared to provoke Moscow and later wished to protect valued trade links. For its part, the Soviet Union feared for the loyalty of the 15 per cent of its population who speak Turkic dialects, stretching into a crescent across its southern boarders in central Asia.

Few in Azerbaijan or Turkey believe that the pan-Turkish dream of a union of Turkic peoples in anything but a dream, like the legend of the Grey Wolf said to have guided the Turks in their migrations westward from the Mongolian steppe a millennium ago. But as the Soviet Union decentralises, it is increasingly common to hear the idea voiced that Turkey will no longer stand alone as the self-styled “last independent Turkish state.”

The Turk in Istanbul may be lukewarm to such ideas, discredited because it was espoused by right-wing extremists during violence in the 1970s. But among the seven million people of soviet Azerbaijan, decades of frustration have bottled up feelings of Turkishness that are far more striking, for instance, than any post-glasnost revival of Islam.

Azerbaijan’s 70 mosques are being renovated but three generations of Marxist education have Europeanised the mainly Shia population. The Marlboro-smoking religious leader of Azerbaijan, Allahsukur Pasazade, effectively lost his deposit in the recent elections. The only taxi-driver I found who displayed a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear he did not want and Islamic state.

On the boulevards of Baku, the Soviet Azerbaijani capital, cassette tape sellers stock almost as much Turkish music as Azerbaijani. Hotel receptionists follow the fate of Turkish football teams and a teashop owner proudly displays a picture in his wallet of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.

“We like Turkish songs. We know their poetry. We have the same blood. We are Turks inside,” said Kamer Novrozaliyeva, 21, an Azerbaijani teacher. Refik Onur, an Istanbul chemicals manufacturer who attended the recent Azerbaijan Business Congress, where the biggest delegation came from Turkey, said he often had to eat in two houses each night in order not to give offence. “I never imagined such love,” he said.

Although plum contracts for the oil and cotton industries are likely to go to Western multinationals, the communist leadership of Azerbaijan has started its foreign visits with ground-breaking tours of Turkey, reciprocated by a visit from President Turgut Ozal’s wife, Semra. The Azerbaijan Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, glows with pleasure at the thought of engineering the same economic boom that Mr Ozal gave Turkey in the 1980s.

“We are doing everything that can be done with Turkey,” Mr Hasanov said. “We have great feelings for Turkey and Iran.”

In neighbouring northwest Iran, there are between 15 and 20 million Azeri Turks living in what some nationalists call “South Azerbaijan”. But both Soviet and Iranian Azerbaijanis say that a basic popular wish for reunion is complicated by differences arising from more than 150 years of separate development. For the times being, Soviet Azerbaijanis say that Turkey remains a more attractive partner mainly because it offers economic hope and a Moscow-free rout to the West, through Azerbaijan’s westernmost outpost of Nakhichevan.

A Turkish consulate opens in Baku soon, but Cengiz Israfil, a senior Turkish official of Azerbaijani origin, said: “Our policy has not changed. We don’t want to get involved in internal Soviet politics. Pan-Turkism is a false dream… But personally I would like to see more independent Turkish republics.”

Independence is the ultimate desire of nearly all Azerbaijanis and local political forces in the republic, including a bewildering variety of 15 small new parties, the main opposition movement, the National Front, and even, to a certain extent, the well-entrenched ruling Communist Party. Some Azerbaijanis see Baku’s role as a future lodestar and route to the West for the other Turkic republics of Turkmenistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan further east.

Meanwhile lessons have been learned from “Black January” when mass rallies for independence led by the National Front in Baku were crushed by the Soviet Army; 122 people were killed.

“It must be that the Soviet leadership doesn’t feel it necessary to do such things again,” Mr Hasanov says. “We are going towards independence. But it will not be by Lithuania’s or Armenia’s way. We will negotiate [with Moscow] all the way. We do not want to harm the other republics.”

After the Soviet intervention, the Communist Party successfully repressed and split the National Front. Baku remains under a 1am to 5 am, its fine turn-of-the-century centre scarred by a burnt-out Armenian cathedral. Two years of ethnic strife in the Transcaucasus have left some 250,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia living in slum suburbs around Baku or in Armenian homes deserted by their owners. Only a few thousand Armenians remain from what was once a community of 300,000 people.

In this strained atmosphere, two rounds of voting on 20 September and 14 October gave the Communist Party 90 per cent of seats for the 360-seat Azerbaijan parliament. Nobody believes the result is representative, since opposition parties were not allowed to hold meetings, Communist Party pressured on voters on polling-day were great and turnout was low.

“They put 22 other communist candidates up against me in my constituency alone. No wonder I couldn’t reach the 50 per cent barrier,” said Vahit Akhundov, an opposition figure.

“If the elections had been free, the party would have lost power… the Baku leadership is there with the support of the Soviet army,” said Haidar Aliev, the former communist strongman of Azerbaijan who was ousted from the Soviet Politurbo in 1987. Mr Aliev was elected as an independent last month with the highest percentage vote of any candidate in Azerbaijan.

The Communist Party remains relatively strong and is adopting Azeri national issues as it struggles to recover popularity. Mr Hasanov wants an Azerbaijani army and is struggling to bring economic independence and direct foreign trade to the long-isolated republic which has large surpluses in basic foodstuffs and energy.

Azerbaijani officials say that both a strong army and economy are vital to counter what is seen as the main threat to the republic, the Armenians. Azerbaijan is convinced that Moscow and the West give one-sided support to what everyone in Baku describes as Armenian aggression. Azerbaijanis point to Armenian claims on the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh and what they say are a pattern of attacks against the 300,000-strong Azerbaijani enclave of the Nakhichevan, bordering Turkey and Iran.

Armenians launched attacks on Nakhichevan in January. Azerbaijani nationalists tore down the border fences with Iran and Turkey and forced the enclave’s parliament to declare a unilateral independence which, although it collapsed after eight days, was technically the first in the Soviet Union. Some Azerbaijanis are bitter that the Turkish troops could do little more than mass on the border. But Azerbaijanis involved in the clashes said a dozen or so Turkish “Grey Wolf” irregulars managed to slip across to fight alongside what Turks on both sides of the border agree are their “brothers in soul and blood”.

A first report from Baku’s post-Soviet oil rush

This is one of a group of articles I wrote during a wild trip to Azerbaijan’s First International Business Conference in October 1990. There were a lot of “firsts” back then as the Soviet Union fragmented – starting with the first direct passenger flight I know of between Istanbul and Baku. This story is perhaps the first published news that BP was to play a leading role in the new development of post-Soviet Azerbaijan’s oil wealth. My full impressions of Baku’s early independence can be found in chapters 3, 7 and 20 of my book on the rise of the Turkic world, Sons of the Conquerors.

Tuesday 23 October 1990


BP ahead in Great Baku oil rush

Azerbaijan risks Moscow’s ire by enlisting the West to revive its oil industry, writes Hugh Pope in Baku

THE GREAT century-old oilfields of Baku are opening up to foreign exploration and production for the first time since their capture by Soviet Russia in 1920, triggering a latter-day oil rush in which an alliance between British Petroleum and Statoil of Norway has taken the lead.

edited pic

“The size of the new field being discussed has significance in world terms,” said Rondo Fehlberg, leading a team of BP-Statoil negotiators in Baku, the capital of the Transcaucasian Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.

Amoco of Houston and Unocal of California also joined last week’s extraordinary circus of talks at the end of which the Azerbaijani government announced the redevelopment of its languishing 200,000 – 250,000 bpd oil industry was up for international tender.

The Azerbaijani Prime Minister, Hasan Hasanov, said: “We want all the best companied in the world to come.”

Despite official assurances of a “flat playing field”, Azerbaijani officials say BP-Statoil was most likely to win the contract to develop an offshore field previously named after “the 26 Baku Commissars”, a group of pro-Bolshevik revolutionaries that official Soviet historians used to allege were shot during a six-week British occupation of Baku in 1918.

The new field, in 120 – 300 metres of water and outside the reach of Soviet drilling technology, was last weekend renamed the “Azer” field in line with the Azerbaijani government’s strong bit for economic independence from Moscow, Mr Hasanov said.

He demands $2m (£1.02m) from anyone who wants to know the new offshore field’s size, but all agree it is big – “enough to cause a stir if it were found in the North Sea”, Mr Fehlberg said.

Despite being the world’s oldest oil centre – it produced half the world’s oil before the First World War – executives say inefficient extraction and limited exploitation mean much is still left behind.

Oil still oozes out from the ground on the outskirts of the Baku, giving the city air its heavy hydrocarbon scent. A US-South Korean group is in advanced negotiations for what Azerbaijani officials say is a $5bn redevelopment of the bleak rig-studded landscape.

Mr Insun Yun, of the newly formed Azerbaijan-Korean Enterprise, said: “We think there is 1.5 billion tonnes of oil still under there.”

A big question mark over all the excitement was what Moscow might thing of this foreign oil rush into what, despite the fact that Baku now only produces about 2 per cent of the Soviet Union’s oil, is one of its jealously guarded strategic assets.

Mr Hasanov said he has received no word from the Soviet capital about how it would view this independence: “There are no obstacles – they have all been removed. You have to understand the concept. We want to increase production and dispose of the surplus. We do not want to harm the other republics.”

Local encouragement to seek out links to foreign firms has released a surge of commercial energy in Baku, whose proud turn-of-the-century boulevards and palaces are now ageing apartment blocks or stores empty of anything but the most basic goods.

One oil executive said: “I’ve never seen anything like it. This old trading people have been released from 70 years of bondage. It’s like a parched man who has just had a bucket of water thrown over his head and doesn’t know where to start drinking it.”

The old guard at the Caspian Sea off-shore operators, Kasmorneftigaz – which extracts nearly 80 per cent of the republic’s oil – wants to keep the situation clear and under control.

A director, Abbas Abasov said: “We just want one single operator, a big international oil company to do the whole job with us.”

The join venture contract would include full rights for exploration and production at the former “26 Baku Commissars” field as well as adjoining prospecting rights – a huge undertaking for any company, he acknowledged.

Mr Fehlberg said: “They have needs that are much broader than our expertise or current desires. It just is not the kind of thing that Western companies do. But we are interested in co-ordinating it.”

He estimated it would take six months to put together a joint venture and that studies of the field could be completed next year, but the announcement of an international tender meant delays.

Compensation would be through a share in production, but no talks had been held on how it would be shipped out of the Caspian Sea area.

The Prime Minister has said he is considering both a gas pipeline to Turkey and an upgrading of the 1,700km Baku-Batum crude oil pipeline to the Black Sea. A complex multilateral $21m deal, signed and approved by Moscow, will allow Britain’s KBC Process Technology to upgrade one of Baku’s two major refineries, according to Brian Swan, KBC’s marketing director.

“Last year they lost $14m – $18m in gas fires alone. The refinery could be making $400m a year at today’s oil prices.”

Tahrir, Taksim and the Ottoman Empire

Hugh Pope

Screen shot 2013-10-07 at 22.19.44In 2011, a book review monthly sent me Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, asking for 5,000 words on all that it might mean. It set my head spinning, a dense, comprehensive battery of sources writing in 1908-1914, making me feel like I was in the same busy conference as a crowd of bourgeois Ottomans. There were also many uncanny parallels with what was going on in 2011 in Tahrir Square and other places of ferment during the Arab Uprisings. I wrote nothing about it at the time – I wasn’t part of those Arab events and wasn’t sure it was a fair to make the comparison. I delayed and prevaricated. I stopped hearing from the book review monthly. Then, in the summer of 2013, protests poured onto the streets of Istanbul outside my house, and I understood what I could and had to…

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decade as Turkey’s prime minister

Interviewing Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2004

Interviewing Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2004

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrates his 10th anniversary as Turkey’s prime minister on 14 March, 2003. Below is a cover story I did for the Cairo Review of Global Affairs summing up the story so far, published ahead of the 10th anniversary of the November 2002 election victory of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.  (Erdoğan himself had to wait until he could remove a legal obstacle and win a by-election before he could take his post.) A more recent assessment of why I think Erdoğan and Turkey need to get back to measuring themselves against EU norms was published by The Majalla and can be found here, as Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime.

Erdoğan’s Decade

By Hugh Pope

The swirling currents of daily political life in Turkey enjoy a wild unpredictability. But in November 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) swept to power with surprising strength, it turned out that it was riding one of Turkey’s regular underlying tides. This sudden popular reversal was much the same as in 1950 when a similar surge of votes brought Adnan Menderes and the Democrat Party to power. And it happened again in 1983 in favor of Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party. On each of these three occasions, the new leader catching the public imagination was charismatic, pragmatic, and able to gather round him a coalition of interests including conservative landowners, progressive businessmen, Turkish nationalists, Kurds, the pious, a scattering of liberals, and a bedrock of skepticism about Turkey’s secularist ideology and its military enforcers. The stars of Menderes and Özal both faded after ten years, during which time they became more autocratic and began to rely on an ever-narrowing circle of advisers. Erdoğan, perhaps the most effective leader of them all, reaches his tenth anniversary in November.

A younger Erdoğan in July 2002. (Photo HP)

A younger Erdoğan in July 2002. (Photo HP)

It was not immediately obvious that Erdoğan would emerge as such a national leader. A graduate of an imam and preacher-training school, he had risen through the youth wing of the implicitly pro-Islamist and usually marginal movement led by veteran politician Necmettin Erbakan. Erdoğan’s opportunity arrived in 1994, when divisions in Turkey’s political system and his own campaigning energy secured him the mayor’s seat in Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and commercial capital, with just one quarter of the vote. His split with the Erbakan movement came in 2001, when he and the movement’s pragmatic wing realized they needed mass appeal if they were ever to win national elections. And in 2002, Erdoğan benefited from a general sense of popular fatigue with squabbling old-school politicians in a country still reeling from a major economic crisis. Add to the mix the fact that he and his party offered something plausible and new, and Erdoğan enjoyed a similar confluence of circumstances that had allowed newcomers Menderes and Özal their surprise victories in 1950 and 1983.

The jury is still out on the achievements of the AKP’s first decade. Great successes marked the early years—waves of reforms, the opening of EU accession negotiations, the end of torture in jails, strong economic expansion, and more improvements for ethnic Kurds than any previous government. But the AKP has fumbled important policies, often following failures of its own political will. Cyprus remains unsolved; a great wedge between Turkey and the EU. The Armenian genocide question, at one time at the gate of a path to resolution, is once again an arena of growing friction. And the Kurdish problem, in the process of being resolved in 2009, has fallen back into armed conflict. Domestic critics see the similar corrosive effects of absolute power on the AKP, with thousands of Turks being detained and hundreds held for years on controversial grounds of “terrorism.” These are mostly Turkish Kurd activists, but also include nationalists, soldiers, university students, academics, and journalists.

As with the Menderes and Özal parties before it, the fate of the AKP is above all linked to Prime Minister Erdoğan. Some people say they voted for the tall, broad-shouldered ex-mayor just because of the confident swagger in his stride; others saw him as a scary product of his former pro-Islamic party. There was radical fire enough in a poem read out by Erdoğan in 1997 to cost him his job as Istanbul mayor and provoke a temporary ban from politics: ‘The mosques are our barracks, / The domes our helmets, / The minarets our bayonets, / And the believers our soldiers.’ But the poem was actually written by Turkish nationalist panegyrist Ziya Gökalp (who died in 1924) and Erdoğan’s ability to win 34 percent of the vote in 2002 proved that ordinary Turks had accepted Erdoğan as a solid manager of Istanbul, not as a scary fundamentalist.

Indeed, during the campaign, Erdoğan told visitors to the AKP’s headquarters that he simply wanted to be known as a conservative and explicitly stated that he had broken with his radical Islamist past. “That period is over, finished,” he said, in his sometimes brusque style. “We have opened a new page with a new group of people, a brand new party . . . we were anti-European. Now we’re pro-European.” When challenged over past statements such as “my reference is Islam,” however, Erdoğan retained an element of the old ambivalence of the Islamist underground. “Islam is a religion; democracy is a way of ruling. You can’t compare the two. We just want to increase the happiness of the people,” he said. Secularists remained nervous that a new, Islamist ideology would take the place of their own. None missed an opportunity to recall that Erdoğan had once cynically compared democracy to “catching a train. When you get to your station, you get off.”

‘Brother Tayyip’

Erdoğan had already come a long way from his Istanbul origins in a working-class neighborhood whose proud men are a by-word in Turkey for rejecting any compromise as an unacceptable loss of face. Joining Turkey’s Islamist movement as a youth, Erdoğan and later his wife Emine were responsible for consolidating the party’s vote-winning infantry in the city. As much as the policies, it was Erdoğan’s control of this organization, and an obsession for opinion polls and market surveys, that was to bring him success in 2002 and keep his share of the vote above 50 percent in 2011. By this time, Erdoğan was able to send his children to U.S. universities—his daughters supposedly so they could wear their headscarves (legally banned although tolerated on Turkish campuses) but he never wanted anyone to think he had forgotten his origins. “In this country, there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks,” Erdoğan once said. “Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.”

Erdoğan’s first big test as AKP prime minister was the run-up to, and fall-out from, the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. As so often in Turkey, the AKP’s instincts vacillated between alignment with the West, Christian and disdainful yet rich and strong; and sympathy for the Middle East, poorer and traumatized by conflicts, but fellow Muslims and neighbors. Initially, Erdoğan promised to cooperate with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in return for the promise of an extensive Turkish say in the future of northern Iraq plus billions of dollars in grant aid and loans. But the Americans didn’t read the complex politics of Turkey correctly, and even Erdoğan underestimated the strength of opposition to U.S. plans within his own party. On March 1, 2003, more than a quarter of his deputies declined to enter the assembly or voted against Turkish cooperation with the Iraq invasion. AKP leaders were left ashen-faced as they discovered they were three deputies short of the necessary parliamentary quorum. The measure was defeated.

There was no easy going back and Erdoğan had to embrace what he called a “democratic outcome.” Polls showed 94 percent of Turks opposed the war, because, like Europeans and others around the world, they did not believe that Iraq was responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on America, and they feared intervention would further destabilize the Middle East, hurt the Turkish economy, encourage ethnic Kurdish separatism, and fuel radicalism in the region. Not surprisingly, U.S. leaders were furious at being jilted just a couple of weeks before the planned outbreak of hostilities, not just by the AKP but by lukewarm Turkish generals too. American supply ships waiting off the Turkish coast had to sail to the Persian Gulf, their advance units had to reload what they had unloaded at Turkish ports, and troops had to leave outposts already established along the Turkish highway to northern Iraq—in one televised instance, pelted with stones by local people.

Thanks to the initial success and brevity of the military campaign, the AKP escaped the full force of U.S. opprobrium. Erdoğan rushed to make up by granting overflight rights, offering troops (in the event rejected by Iraq’s new authority), and opening up supply routes for the new U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. In 2007, Turkey and the U.S. signed a deal that saw Ankara normalize relations with Iraqi Kurds and secure U.S. intelligence in its fight against Turkish Kurd insurgents. Indeed, by 2011, the U.S. increasingly treated Turkey as a key regional partner as it moved back from engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading President Abdullah Gül to call this period a ‘golden age’ in relations with Washington.

The mid-2000s had not been smooth sailing for the AKP, however. The new party needed allies as it faced bitter opposition from the Kemalists within the bureaucracy and military, the staunch followers of republican founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which proved the basis for many later investigations of alleged coup plots. Showing their pragmatic ability to seize an opportunity, Erdoğan and Gül sought national inspiration and political protection by embracing the troubled convergence process with the European Union. Shortly after his party’s first electoral victory in 2002, Erdoğan set off on a whirlwind tour of European capitals. The athletic, then-forty-eight-year-old Erdoğan’s performance made a sharp contrast with his geriatric predecessor, Bülent Ecevit. European counterparts were impressed by Erdoğan’s direct approach and relieved by his reformist program. He also received red carpet treatment in Greece, where he followed up on the 1999 rapprochement with Athens and promised a new start regarding Cyprus, complete with new and strong support for the reunification of the island.

Divorcing the EU

Erdoğan and the AKP continued with revolutionary reforms enacted by Ankara since the 1999 recognition of Turkey as an EU membership candidate. The secularist coalition of Prime Minister Ecevit had already rewritten one-third of the Turkish constitution by adopting international human rights laws, ending capital punishment, expanding women’s rights, discouraging torture, and improving prison conditions. New laws curtailed existing restrictions on freedom of expression, civil society, and the media, as well as diminishing the Turkish military’s long-standing dominance of politics. The AKP followed this with several further packages of EU reforms passed in 2003–4, which expanded Kurdish cultural rights, brought a level of transparency to the army budget, and restricted the executive power of the National Security Council. The NSC was not merely a parallel government where top civilian and military officials hammered out Turkish national policy, but an entire military-dominated apparatus with a 600-man secretariat that monitored sensitive areas of the administration and had eyes in all state institutions. Pushing ever further, Erdoğan announced in 2012 that the ‘national security’ lesson in schools would end.

This reforming trend and the signed promise of increased normalcy with Cyprus finally won Turkey its October 3, 2005 date to begin EU membership negotiations. Nevertheless, at the December 2004 European Council where this was decided, the Dutch premier of the day didn’t receive any gratitude or back-slapping bear hugs that marked the elated reactions of other Balkan states accorded the same green light. Indeed, there is a deep ambivalence in Turkey towards the EU. Polls typically show a roughly 60 percent majority of Turks supporting membership but only 40 percent believe that it will actually happen. Ironically, only about 40 percent of people in the EU can accept the idea of Turkish membership although 60 percent believe Turkey will get it anyway. On one hand, the digestive power of the EU went to work as ministries modernized floor by floor and EU standards and regulations crept into Turkish law across a broad front from motor vehicle tests to snack stand environmental rules. But on the other hand, a Turkish artist portrayed the process in a short video set in a workshop where a worker in blue overalls steadily stone grinds a hard, pointed piece of metal. As the flying sparks die away at the end, the metal turns out to be the crescent moon of the Turkish flag, its spiky point rounded off, and, by implication, now an impotent symbol, curbed by new masters in Brussels.

Ankara still insists on its long-promised right to join. But almost no Turkish leader, questioned privately, says they would immediately sign membership treaties if and when the country fulfils all the necessary criteria. President Gül has repeatedly said that Turkey might prefer the Norwegian option, being able to join but choosing not to do so. Indeed, Turkey continues to block Greek Cypriot access to Turkish ports, thereby casting a pall over an accession process that has only thickened over the years. By the end of the AKP’s second term in office in June 2011, only thirteen chapters had been opened and one provisionally closed, and all but the rest had been blocked. The membership process had come to a virtual standstill.

Erdoğan and the AKP have blamed Europe for the slowdown. And, indeed, the old continent’s right wing governments, populist parties, economic slowdown, and loss of formerly expansive confidence have had a gravely depressing effect. The pro-Turkey EU leaders who swung the 2004 European Council in favor of accession talks were gradually replaced. But most damaging was the 2007 election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who chose to win votes via direct attacks on the EU-Turkey process. This short-term appeal to French anti-immigration sentiment was both a breach of France’s treaty commitments and a blow to France’s long-term commercial interests. It triggered an emotional response in Turkey, where early republicanism was self-consciously modeled on France’s Jacobin revolutionary heritage and secularist ideology. Even if the previous EU-Turkey process could be compared to a game in which Turkey pretended to join and the EU pretended to accept it, Sarkozy’s determination to walk out on the deal effected a rupture that had all the atmospherics of an acrimonious divorce.

However, Erdoğan and the AKP must also take their share of the blame for the deterioration of ties with Europe. They voluntarily chose not to enact the partial normalization with the Republic of Cyprus required of them, later citing the EU’s failure to implement some lesser promise. There were also other signs of an underlying lack of Turkish enthusiasm for going all the way to EU-mandated transparency in government, decentralization of power, and freedom of expression. Until 2009, the chief Turkish EU negotiator was also a busy foreign minister. Turkey’s EU General Secretariat, in charge of coordinating the adoption of EU laws, was under staffed and under funded. Talk of enacting the National Program for adopting those laws dragged out for more than a year before it was enacted in 2008. The blunt Erdoğan showed little aptitude for bonding with the less-colorful and softer-spoken EU leaders while his grandstanding style made them wonder how he would ever fit into the collegial atmosphere of European Council meetings. EU officials bristled at their frequent clashes with Turkish counterparts who kept negotiations on edge until the last minute, were unable to make decisions on their own, and whose uncompromising maximalism often made Turkey look as if it wanted to have its cake and to eat it too.

Generals and Headscarves

The EU process did, however, give the AKP cover as it saw off the biggest threat to its rule, the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish general staff had gritted its teeth as AKP took power in 2002 and avoided attending official receptions where Turkey’s new leaders were accompanied by their headscarfed wives. Their implicit insubordination had an intimidating effect, following as it did the witch-hunts against anyone with pro-Islamic tendencies after the 1997 ousting of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party. In 2009, when the AKP felt firmly in charge, prosecutors discovered what they said was a web of coup conspiracies organized by a deep state group they called Ergenekon and arrested large numbers of senior officers. It is doubtful whether the plotting was quite as widespread as some in the AKP thought. But for sure, the secularist officer corps was seething with resentment against what they saw as a political force determined to undo Atatürk’s secularist legacy. And leaked documents and testimony do indicate discussions and conspiracies against the government from 2003 onwards.

Erdogan in July 2011, having seen off the military threat (Photo Adem Altan, AFP)

Erdogan in July 2011, having seen off the military threat (Photo Adem Altan, AFP)

As it became clear that the AKP was intending to nominate one of its leaders, Abdullah Gül, to become president in early 2007, the chief of the general staff began dropping critical hints. A group, including retired officers, started organizing pro-secularist demonstrations. These drew hundreds of thousands in western cities, and serving generals even circulated propaganda by email to urge on the movement. On April 27, 2007, parliament held the first round of the presidential election and Gül did not get the necessary two-thirds majority. The same evening the general staff published on its website a memorandum warning that it was “a party to these debates and the definitive defender of secularism” and that it would “if necessary, openly display its reaction.” Five days later, on May 1, another Kemalist stronghold, the Constitutional Court, found in favor of an application to annul the election on the grounds of a hitherto unknown quorum technicality claimed by the secularist and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

After this public threat from the general staff, some AKP leaders and sympathizers packed small suitcases, ready to be led off to jail the next morning. But Turkey had changed, and Erdoğan, Gül, and the AKP did not lose their nerve. They brought parliamentary elections forward from November to July and, faced with a choice between the AKP and the military, the Turkish people voted massively for the AKP. On July 22, 2007, the people gave the ruling party 46.6 percent of the vote; thirteen points ahead of its 2002 performance. The pro-military CHP trailed with 20.9 percent. On August 28, 2007, the new parliament duly elected Gül as president and his wife, Hayrünnisa, became Turkey’s first ‘first lady’ to wear a headscarf.

For several months, military top brass continued to boycott official ceremonies, sometimes with considerable rudeness. There was, however, no question that the military had been forced back to its barracks. The army had been able to meddle so much in Turkey’s military-dominated past because, when politicians were so obviously unpopular, generals could plausibly present themselves as the voice of the silent majority. But a conscript army could not be mobilized against a political party that had won nearly half of the national vote. Gradually the system adapted: it helped that Gül was always engagingly polite and cultivated a moderate and statesmanlike image. People became more used to seeing the headscarfed wives of the AKP elite, some of whom, like the wife of the first AKP foreign minister, Ali Babacan, dressed as elegantly as fairy-tale princesses.

Despite this, the AKP has been unable to overcome a deepening, almost tribal polarization between the secularist and pious, religious tendencies within society. This split was worsened by both the AKP’s attitude that its parliamentary majority gave it and it alone the right to decide what was best for the country, and the opposition’s stubbornly zero-sum mentality that its popularity would be damaged if it allowed the AKP to succeed in anything. The opposition refused to discuss cooperation on a new constitution after 2007—essentially, the AKP’s primary election pledge—and it did little to help the AKP’s 2009 initiative to reach out to Turkey’s Kurds. High society Istanbul dinner parties often divided into viscerally angry debates in which liberals would defend the AKP’s performance and secularists would decry the AKP’s infringements of old Atatürkist norms. This could often seem like class war. After all, the AKP represented a newly-urbanized majority descended from villagers and small-town merchants, while the secularists represented the old elite whose grandparents, refugees from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, had taken over Anatolian towns and built the Turkish republic from the 1920s.

Kurds and other Conundrums

One successful novelty of the early AKP years was a broadening détente on the Kurdish problem, although it remained slow, imperfect, and marred with continued outbreaks of violence and injustice. In the parliamentary elections of November 2002, the explicitly Kurdish nationalist party won 6.2 percent of the countrywide vote, but because it failed to exceed the national barrier of 10 percent, it received no seats in parliament. The party was banned for alleged links to separatist terrorism in 2005 and in 2007 its successor chose to run its candidates as independents, enough of whom won seats to qualify as a twenty-deputy party bloc in parliament. Kurdish nationalist politicians were enjoying long terms in power in many municipalities in the southeast, becoming more of a working cog in the political system and more responsive to civil needs. Indeed, generally lower levels of violence, in addition to the AKP’s enlightened development and road-building policies and rising levels of prosperity in Turkey as a whole, transformed the face of Kurdish-majority cities, with their new apartment buildings, shopping centers, and neater, greener urban spaces. In 2009, as part of what became known as the ‘Democratic Opening,’ a twenty-four-hour Kurdish language state television channel went on air, local Kurdish broadcasters were allowed to broadcast in Kurdish, a first attempt was made to bring Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas home to benefit from an amnesty, and universities were permitted to register Kurdish language and literature courses.

Progress was, however, too slow and insincere to satisfy Kurdish nationalists. They had to struggle every day against legal Turkish harassment and social prejudice in order to win more respect and political representation. During the first two years of the supposed ‘Democratic Opening’ (2009–11), for instance, the state jailed, for various periods, more than 3,000 nationalist political activists, not for any acts of violence but almost all on the presumption that they sympathized with or spoke about one of the policies attributed to the PKK.

The PKK had already withdrawn the ceasefire it had announced in 1999, saying that state forces hadn’t backed off. The late 2000s were increasingly characterized by a cat-and-mouse game of clashes and further ceasefires. During upswings of violence, PKK insurgents ambushed outlying conscript-manned army outposts and lay roadside bombs for passing convoys, while radical offshoots would sometimes stage terrorist attacks in the hearts of major western Turkish cities or against tourists on Mediterranean beaches. For its part, the Turkish military would hunt insurgent units high in the mountains and conduct aerial bombardments of  their bases in northern Iraq, sometimes followed up by land incursions. Extravagant Kurdish political shows of support for the PKK or funerals of Turkish soldiers killed in lethal clashes caused peaks of nationalist outrage that put pressure on the government and hindered all attempts at political dialogue. The situation had unraveled so far that, by the second half of 2011, fighting and bombings killed more than 300 members of the security forces, PKK fighters, and civilians. In the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, a general sense of a happier, tidier, more prosperous normalcy seemed to co-exist with outbreaks of mayhem. Yet at the same time, a PKK funeral could trigger a mass strike by shopkeepers, running battles in the outskirts of town between the Turkish police and Kurdish youths armed with knives, firecrackers, and Molotov cocktails while the police fired pistols in the air, released tear gas into crowds, and photographed participants for later arrest. Turks in the west of the country repeatedly failed to understand the Kurds’ need for dignity and national recognition, to feel Kurdish pain as the bodies of PKK guerrillas were brought home for burial, or the growing anger, energy, and mobilization of the new and still-dispossessed generation of Kurdish youth.

During its early years, the AKP managed to keep the support of western Turkish liberals, who accepted that pragmatism outweighed its religious leanings and shared its skeptical approach to the old-school statism of the Kemalists. AKP leaders had split with the pro-Islamist movement in 2001, and if they retained any Islamist agenda, it was unstated and relatively subtle. Some Anatolian regions resembled those provincial U.S. towns that banish liquor to brown bags bought at stores on the outskirts, acquired alcohol prices of almost Swedish levels in relative terms, and saw moralistic laws soft-focus cigarettes and alcohol out of television shows. But the first years of AKP rule also saw a blossoming of the open air restaurant and cafe culture in many cities, a boom in Russian and European tourism, and a phenomenal expansion of small enterprises manufacturing higher quality wine and spirits. Erdoğan’s attempt in 2007 to revert to the pre-1998 criminalization of adultery in Turkey, apparently on religious grounds, foundered not just on European disapproval but also on domestic outcry.

Liberals were gradually alienated, which brought more votes for the opposition in western coastal cities and led to the AKP’s loss in the 2009 municipal elections of the booming Mediterranean tourist resort city of Antalya. And, the AKP did not root out the judiciary’s authoritarian habits. At one point after the 2009 launch of the Ergenekon complex of court cases, more than 10 percent of serving generals and admirals were behind bars for supposed military and deep state coup plotting. The prosecutors clearly went too far, rounding up octogenarian activists, leaking evidence that appeared fraudulent, and jailing one well-known secularist Ankara commentator, Mustafa Balbay, for more than two years without informing him of the charges against him. Turkish Kurds and other dissidents fared no better. As happens too often in Turkey, the judicial system judged intention as action, mistook smoke for fire, confused sympathy with rebel causes for criminal anti-state revolt, and locked up many people on the presumption of guilt as an inefficient judicial process limped along for years until, as everyone knew was likely, many of the suspects would be found innocent.

Early on, the AKP tried hard to settle chronic foreign policy problems. One notable effort concerned Turkey’s long-standing differences with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. Years of secret contact, civil society interaction, and then open negotiations resulted in two protocols being signed in October 2009. These formed a framework for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia and the opening of their mutual border, closed by Turkey in 1993. At the same time, the two sides agreed to establish joint official commissions, including one with participation from Swiss experts, to study their disputed history—principally the question of how to agree on the underlying facts and denomination of what the world calls the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, and what Turkey increasingly accepts as tragic wartime massacres of several hundred thousand. In parallel, Turkey harbored an unspoken hope that the Armenians would withdraw from some of the 13.5 percent of Azerbaijan that they occupied in the 1992–4 war that conquered Azerbaijan’s Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno Karabagh. Unfortunately, the two protocols stalled in late 2009 when strong objections were raised by Azerbaijan—a major Turkish energy supplier, trading partner, and ethnic cousin. To a lesser extent, the Armenian diaspora and opposition were uncomfortable with any compromise towards Turkey, and most Armenians opposed any explicit link to Armenian withdrawals from conquered territories around the Karabagh mountains. As often seems to happen, the breakdown was not a result of any bad intentions of the AKP, but rather an apparent inability to think through the need to stick by new policies when the political going got tough.

Despite this setback, Armenian and Turkish civil groups and media have stayed in regular contact. Journalist exchanges, cultural events, small business, and even the delivery of transit passes to Armenian truck drivers driving through Turkey have kept pushing normalization forward. The road has been bumpy, including the infamous 2005 prosecution of Turkey’s leading writer Orhan Pamuk for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ by referring to the killings of Armenians and Kurds. That charge was dropped on a technicality in 2006, the year that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But by 2011, the debate had moved on so far that it was unremarkable to find, for instance, a progressive Turkish newspaper commentary drawing the conclusion that the 1915 massacres “may not be a genocide in [legalistic] words, but that’s what they were in essence.” These “massacres” were commemorated for the second year running in 2011 across Turkey, including Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

The AKP also failed to clear up another legacy of the past: the well-grounded suspicions regarding the deep state’s failure to deal, in a timely manner, with attacks against non-Muslim minorities. A Catholic priest, Andreas Santoro, was murdered in Trabzon in 2006 and three Christian missionaries had their throats slit in Malatya in April 2007. The Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was once convicted for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ on the basis of mistranslated articles, was assassinated in January 2007. His death shook the country, as did credible allegations of official involvement with the teenage nationalist who murdered him. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to demonstrate their solidarity with the slain writer. But rather than giving justice to the victims’ families and reforming the intolerant xenophobia of the media and education systems, which underlie these murders, the passing years and eventual court ruling in January 2012, which allowed most of the accused to walk free, points to official indulgence of, and indeed complicity with, the perpetrators.

As the army became less of a threat and liberal support appeared dispensable, the AKP gradually lost interest in Europe and EU norms, and slowed reforms that would have brought greater transparency, accountability, competition, and open markets, and limited the government’s power to distribute patronage. Indeed, it was now the secularists who needed to seize the banner of EU-bound reform, something they failed to immediately appreciate. Even high-ranking Turkish officials became scornful of the way several member states’ economies faltered after the 2008 financial crisis, the euro came under attack, and deep political fault-lines made the EU look confused and ineffective. Turkey, by contrast, helped by a recapitalized and better-regulated banking sector, rebounded rapidly from the initial crisis and appeared to have escaped the contagion. So it was perhaps not surprising that Erdoğan and the AKP turned to the altogether more congenial goal of becoming a champion in its region, particularly in the Middle East, a goal that appeared to neatly serve Turkey’s commercial as well as strategic interests.

Managing the ‘New Middle East’

At first, AKP leaders actively compared their new outreach to the Middle East with the EU’s beginnings and championed benefits derived from the freedom of movement for people, trade, capital, and services. They explicitly aimed, like Europeans after World War II, to integrate and reduce confrontation between neighbors traumatized by decades of revolution, sanctions, and war. The policy has hints of political ambition, not to mention Turkish preeminence, but this neo-Ottoman flavor did not, at first, put off Turkey’s regional partners. Ankara’s first step was to ease travel restrictions and lift visa requirements for travelers from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Libya in 2009, thereby adding to the already automatic system of granting visas to Iranians. A new border crossing was inaugurated with Syria, and Cold War-era minefields were removed between the two countries. Groups of senior cabinet ministers began to hold regular joint meetings, as the AKP had done with other neighbors such as Greece and Russia. And in 2010, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan agreed to transform their bilateral free trade areas into a jointly-managed free trade zone, a first step towards an EU-style multilateral mechanism.

At the same time, Turkey became an observer at the Arab League and hosted foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Istanbul. In 2005, a Turk, Ekmeleddin I.hsanoğlu, won the first contested election to lead the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes representatives from fifty-seven Muslim countries; it’s worth noting too that in 2010 a Turk was also elected to head the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Alongside its civilian and military contributions to North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Afghan and Balkan efforts, Turkey also began contributing ships and 1,000 military personnel and engineers to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Broad regional support elevated Turkey to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for 2009–10, the first time since the early 1960s.

Middle Easterners are finding Turkey more attractive for many reasons. The AKP’s victory had buried the image of a country long seen as having turned its back on Islam to act as a treacherous cat’s paw for Western imperialism in the region. Some prized Turkey’s readiness to challenge Israel openly, arguably the main reason for Turkey’s appeal on Arab streets when it became a pronounced Turkish trait after 2009. Turkey also appears to have made peace between its Muslim soul and secular political pragmatism. Some Middle Easterners respect its status as the only Muslim country to be accepted as a potential equal by rich, powerful Europe, as shown by the hundreds of journalists from the region who attended key EU meetings on Turkey’s future membership. Some like its success in moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Some simply admire the pure electoral legitimacy of Turkish leaders—and readiness to step down from power at the end of their terms.

The AKP has also presided over a period of unprecedented economic and commercial success. After the restructuring that followed a 2000–1 domestic financial crisis, global buoyancy helped Turkey streak ahead. Annual growth averaged 7 percent for the AKP’s early years in office, between 2002 and 2007. Inflation tumbled from an average of 75 percent in the 1990s to 9.5 percent in 2009. Exports quadrupled from $36.1 billion in 2002 to $132 billion in 2008. Foreign investment, which had lingered around $1–2 billion per year for decades, soared to $5.8 billion in 2005 and then averaged about $20 billion for the next three years. In the short term, at least, Turkey’s cleaned-up banking system and relative freedom from mortgage-backed debt allowed it to escape the worst of the 2008–9 global downturn. There is likely to be an adjustment in store for the Turkish economy in 2012, not just because of the slowdown in its main markets in Europe, but because uprisings in the Arab world will likely cause years of tumult and lower economic demand.

The AKP has endured some criticism for the way its ambitious intentions led to embracing unsavory Middle Eastern dictators, who were then disgraced by the 2011 Arab revolts. Nevertheless, in the long term, the AKP’s early proactive and even-handed diplomacy in the region retains the potential to encourage peace and stability, without which prosperity and democracy are unlikely to take root. The streets of Turkish cities and seaside resorts are audibly more filled with visitors from Iran and the Arab world than previously. At the same time, Turkish capital, films, television series, music, and products are establishing themselves in Middle Eastern markets. With more than seventy Turkish TV series sold and dubbed around the region, from Morocco to Kazakhstan, a meeting between a Bosnian, a Croat, and a Serb who differ on everything political could agree on what to make of the last heartbreak in the latest Turkish soap opera.

The AKP’s handling of Israel has been erratic, with trade still continuing but minimal diplomatic relations being conducted through second secretaries and a near-complete break in former military cooperation. As part of a return to the best of what the AKP represented in the early-to mid-2000s, Turkey would benefit from a normalization of ties with Israel as part of a Turkish strategy of equidistance from all its neighbors. However, in this case, the AKP is arguably less to blame for current troubles than the government of Israel. Until 2009, the AKP continued the previous policy of engagement with Israel. AKP leaders often visited the Jewish state, trade rose, and in 2005 Prime Minister Erdoğan himself paid his respects at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, although he declined to cover his head with a yarmulke. Turkey productively hosted several rounds of modest proximity talks between Israel and Syria in 2008.

By contrast, Israel has clearly taken the key steps that escalated the post-2009 deterioration in its relationship with Turkey. Understandably, Erdoğan felt personally betrayed in December 2008 when Israel launched its Gaza operation only days after he had spent five hours dining with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his residence, doing his best as the Israeli-Syrian process seemed to be close to achieving real results. It was when this Gaza operation killed 1,430 Palestinians, including many civilians, that Erdoğan staged his angry outburst against Israeli President Shimon Peres and his now legendary walk-out from the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was an Israeli deputy foreign minister who chose later, in 2009, to insult the Turkish ambassador in front of TV cameras. It was Israeli commandos who killed nine Turks (including a Turkish-American) in May 2010, on board a multi-national flotilla that was, in theory, trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This may have been a reckless idea implicitly approved of by the AKP, but the midnight Israeli assault was on a ship, in practice, steaming south towards Egypt in international waters seventy miles off the Israeli coast. It was also the Israeli government that has declined to endorse an Israeli apology for this incident, the text of which diplomats from both sides have already agreed.

In the short term, the AKP’s challenge to Israel became a principal ingredient in Turkey’s new popularity on the Arab street. However, since the mid-2000s, the AKP has been neglecting another key element of Turkey’s success—and its regional appeal—namely, a healthy relationship with the EU. Europe as a whole still takes more than half of Turkey’s exports, against only a quarter taken by the Middle East. EU states supply more than three quarters of Turkey’s foreign direct investment, the best pointer toward future economic integration. And of the 183 million people who visited the country in the first decade of the new millennium, only 10 percent of visitors came from the Muslim world. Europe is home to up to four million Turks, while less than 100,000 live and work in the Middle East. High oil prices offer Middle Eastern opportunities for Turkish commercial expansion, but these markets are continuing to prove as risky as they have in the past.

The AKP’s and Erdoğan’s principal ambition is to see Turkey as a rich and powerful hub between the Middle East and Europe, and the Mediterranean and Russia. To achieve this, it will have to find its way back to a balance between the spokes of that hub, including, for instance, Turkey’s place as part of European and transatlantic alliances. This is precisely what has, for a long time, made it seem so special to the Middle East.

 Turkey and the AKP are riding high in international opinion. The energetic reforms of the AKP’s’s first years in office have, after a time lag, succeeded in changing the minds of Westerners who have for too long been skeptical about Turkey. The Middle East has been charmed by Turkey’s commercial success, the legitimacy of its politics, and its willingness to publicly challenge Israel. Domestically and internationally, the AKP has done more than any previous government towards solving the problems that have hobbled Turkey for decades: the overbearing dominance of the Turkish military, human rights abuses, infrastructural development, Cyprus, the Turkish Kurd problem, and the Armenian question.

As a result, there has been remarkably little weight given to a growing drumbeat bearing news of similarities to the bad old days of the 1990s: shrill complaints from Turkish media about official pressure to toe the government line, hundreds of dissidents in jail on flimsy charges of terrorism, and a new flaring up of the PKK insurgency. Nearly all segments of Turkish society complain that the judicial system is failing to deliver justice, that the education system needs to move much faster from learning by rote, and that polarization in politics and along the secular-religious divide means that much-needed constitutional reform is hamstrung. AKP initiatives on Cyprus, the Kurds, and Armenia have all run out of steam. The old moral hazard from the Cold War years also appears to be returning, as Washington once again overlooks Ankara’s domestic policy shortcomings in return for support for the U.S. agenda in the region.

Even so, at the ten-year point, Erdoğan’s AKP is in a much better position than his most similar predecessors, Menderes’ Democrat Party in the 1950s and Özal’s Motherland Party in the 1980s–90s. Erdoğan is able to command massive public support and has strong international winds filling his sails. Still, much of that support is derived from the reputation established during the AKP’s early years, dynamics that are now much-diminished: real work on EU convergence, more consensual decision-making and a modest, equidistant approach to Turkey’s complex diplomatic engagements. It is to these dynamics that Erdoğan and the AKP must return if they are to succeed in truly taking Turkey into the global first division.

March 2012, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs