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The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began an insurgency and terrorist campaign against Turkey in 1984, and the United States designated the group to be a terrorist entity 13 years later largely out of deference to Turkey. Turks may insist that the PKK remains a terrorist group, and Kurdish supporters may say it never was, but at their core, such arguments revolve around a debate with regard to the definition of terrorism which the international community, despite decades of concern about the tactic, has yet to resolve.
The PKK is not the only Kurdish group which the United States has saddled with a terror label. After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. government re-interpreted the Immigration and Nationality Act to prohibit members of so-called “Tier III” terror organizations, those like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which had engaged in past armed struggle but had never been formally designated terror groups. While the U.S. government can easily waive sanctions against PUK and KDP members, the designation and process has nevertheless been demeaning to immigration applicants who seek to contribute to American society just as they have contributed to Kurdish society.
The PKK may believe their designation is unfair, but tactical errors both within the PKK and among other Kurdish groups have exacerbated the situation. Kurds long demanded the United States choose between Kurds and Turks. That is the wrong approach. The United States has relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia; with India and Pakistan; and with Japan and China. Both parties in each case are far too sophisticated to demand Washington take a zero-sum approach to the conflict, although for far too long, the PKK and many leading Kurdish intellectuals have demanded that the United States and American officials do just that. What from a Kurdish perspective might seem a clear-cut case was complicated on the American side by Turkey’s larger population, its long Cold War history with the United States, and its continuing NATO participation.
American foreign policy is not always consistent, nor should it be. Friends should get deference while adversaries are treated with skepticism. Principles also matter, but ideologies change with time. The world changes, relationships break, and new ones are formed.
The strains in Turkish-American relations can no longer be papered over. While bilateral tensions have grown over the past five years, the personal friendship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mitigated tension. No longer. Erdoğan, always known for somewhat coarse and buffoonish rhetoric, shocked the White House when he accused Jews and Israel of being behind the Egyptian military’s July coup against President Muhammad Morsi’s regime. While publicly diplomats say the relationship remains unchanged, privately White House officials acknowledge that Obama no longer returns Erdoğan’s phone calls, and the relationship between the two men is now chilly. Exacerbating tension have been disagreements between Washington and Ankara with regard to Turkey’s recent moves to purchase a Chinese anti-aircraft system which, if interwoven into the NATO network, would imperil NATO security, and Turkish assistance to the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate which Turkey apparently supports as a lever against Syrian Kurds.
As U.S-Turkish relations deteriorate, the PKK has a legitimate case to demand reconsideration of its terror listing. Erdoğan himself has legitimized the group with peace talks, transformed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan from a felon whom successive Turkish governments deemed irrelevant into the indispensable man and unquestioned leader of Turkey’s Kurdish community. Erdoğan’s outreach to Hamas, too, has delegitimized Turkish complaints regarding what constitutes terror.
There is also precedent in the United States. In 2012, the State Department de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO), a group thoroughly despised by Iranians which has engaged in terrorism, not only against Iranians, but also against Americans. However, the State Department ultimately determined that the group had not recently targeted Americans. The PKK, in contrast, has never targeted Americans. While its behavior has at times been poor and there is a real case to be made that it has engaged in past terrorism, for more than a decade its actions would more accurately be characterized as traditional insurgency. Insurgents and terrorists are not synonymous.
Reconsideration is not endorsement. The PKK faces serious questions about its past and perhaps present behavior. Authorities in Scandinavia accuse it of involvement in organized crime, and Turkish and other European police agencies suspect it of involvement in the drug trade. And, for all of the PKK’s rhetoric of democracy, personality cults and democratic culture are often mutually exclusive. Accusations do not automatically translate into guilt, however. And, regardless, some American partners in Iraqi Kurdistan have also been complicit in organized crime, development of personality cults and—at least on an individual basis—in the illegal drug trade.
While Turkey’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has an increasingly active presence in Washington, Kurdish representation in the United States is otherwise in decline. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), for example, has been unable to appoint a representative to Washington for well over a year. Nor have Kurdish groups pursued the MKO strategy of paying lobbyists to press the legal case for de-listing. The KRG has, however, offered key consultancies and honorarium to some of the same officials who advocated on behalf of the MKO, for example, former National Security Advisor Jim Jones. For reasons of politics and turf, however, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will not leverage its friends in Washington on behalf of a group they fear could be competition. Iraqi Kurdish leaders did not take kindly to Öcalan’s inclusion on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential personalities when they themselves were not listed. Time was not wrong, however. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Öcalan, he is the most influential Kurdish personality in Turkey, Syria, and perhaps Iran as well.
This does not mean that the PKK should be de-listed; just that it should have its day in court. It should be allowed to present its case for legitimacy and, if its designation is reversed, then it should be allowed to lobby for its interests alongside every other Kurdish group.
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