Ataturk’s Ghost

Two months ago I was a mandarin in a game administered by Erdal Öztürk. Next month he may be executed for treason…

The black vehicles turned quickly off Haji Ali Akinci Cadessi in Erzincan with their lights flashing. There were no guards at the front gate; the Turkish 3rd Army had been ordered to return to barracks by its commander. Even with the street lights on, the long promenade from the avenue to the steps of the headquarters building seemed dark and deserted at one in the morning. Red and blue lights flashed eerily across the massive bronze face of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s statue making his steady gaze seem to alternate monstrously between crimson anger and deep blue sorrow. A tragic confrontation was about to take place in his name. The 3rd Army commander, General Erdal Öztürk, sat quietly behind his desk overlooking the promenade and watched calmly as the police raced up the stairs with their guns drawn. He had already packed his belongings and sent his staff home before calling his wife. These were the early morning hours of 16 July 2016 and he was under arrest for treason. The coup d’etat he was accused of organizing against the Erdogan government had failed as spectacularly as it began.

Öztürk’s Leadership

Two months earlier I was in Istanbul for NATO exercise Trident Jaguar 2016; a training event designed to certify General Öztürk’s Rapid Deployable Corps Headquarters to serve as a NATO joint task force. I never met General Öztürk one on one but I did not need to; his imprint was on everything. He was a good commander in every way. Intelligent, directive, patient, concerned about his staff and his men, and interested in details but not beholden to them, General Öztürk served as both leader and teacher of his staff. I respected him.

I was a member of an elite group of experts employed by NATO to replicate all the functions of a host nation government and the international community in exercises. Known simply as the “White Cell”, we presented complex challenges for the commander and his staff they would be likely to face in a real contingency operation. Our job was to add realism to their training by forcing them to consider the complexities of host nation politics, bureaucratic infighting, opportunism, corruption, and interagency coordination among other things. The demands of the White Cell make it impossible to hire actors to do the job so the small group is populated with former Ambassadors, general officers, bureaucrats, and executives with real experience in the roles they are assigned to play.

General Öztürk delivering a press conference as commander of a fictional NATO Joint Task Force during exercise Trident Jaguar in May 2016.

I served as the host nation’s intelligence director in the scenario which came with the difficult task of convincing senior general officers that despite their capabilities, there were limits to what they would be allowed to do in my fictional, but very sovereign, developed country. Intelligence operations are extremely sensitive matters but after years of operating freely in Afghanistan and the Sahel, most NATO officers were not used to being restricted by the host nation. Some faced an emotional adjustment to the new context and more than one lost his real job for damaging rapport with me or other White Cell role players. I became very good at defusing their impassioned arguments and showing them how to achieve success in ways acceptable to partner governments under stress.

Despite real world concerns about the Syrian border, terrorism at home, and operations against Kurdish rebels, General Öztürk handled the complex exercise scenario with great skill and wisdom. He insisted on considering the host nation’s perspective in all decisions and pushed his staff to apply comprehensive, often non-military approaches to solving problems. His staff did a number of things exceptionally well. Where they needed work, they learned and improved. He was as good as any NATO commander I had seen and represented Turkey brilliantly to the rest of the Alliance…Then came the dramatic fall.

The Ghost of Ataturk

I don’t support the attempted coup on 15 July. President Erdogan, though unhelpful in many ways, is more or less a democrat and Turkey remains a responsible partner in the international order…for now. Though he may be allowing the erosion of Turkish secularism, he is certainly not the cause of it and he is hardly an Islamic extremist. Having said that, Turkey has been a center of economic, political, and military power since before Alexander the Great but the ruling party AKP is allowing its people to be led by ideas from elsewhere rather than the other way around. This is the real tragedy of Erdogan and the reason some Turks are desperate to be rid of him.

The rest of the world has other reasons to desire a change in Turkey. Erdogan’s foreign policy has systematically alienated every single actor on Turkey’s periphery. Israel, Iraq, Iran, Assad, the Kurds, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Armenia, Greece, the European Union, and Russia all have squabbles with Turkey that vary in seriousness. The danger however, is that the convergence of their grievances on the killing fields of Syria threatens to drag them all, particularly NATO, into conflicts it does not want and is not designed for. The combat involvement of Russian troops on both sides of three NATO member states illustrates the delicacy of the situation.

The dangerous immaturity at the heart of this deterioration is a symptom of a would-be tyrant and something the world must now be vigilant against. The Turkish military, which sees itself –and is seen by the people– as the defender of Turkish secularism, had become desperately concerned about Erdogan’s growing power. Removal of Prime Minister Davutoglu in May was a victory for Erdogan and probably triggered a premature move by coup plotters that undoubtedly recognized the window was closing on the Army’s freedom to act. Failure of the coup will now allow Erdogan to purge the military of its AKP-skeptical leadership and rob it of any patriotic boldness it may have had. The emasculated Army is no longer a political obstacle and has lost its ability to invoke the ghost of Ataturk in defense of secularism. This is a threat to the very foundation of modern Turkey and if not moderated, will eventually destroy stability there taking AKP and Erdogan with it.

The drama of the coup that was put down by the people. Many Turkish soldiers believed they were participating in an exercise.


Despite the dire possibilities, I find my mind occupied with a more personal cause for reflection. Two months ago I was a mandarin in a game administered by Erdal Öztürk. Next month he may be executed for treason against his state. The realization gives me great concern for Turkish colleagues and casts a curious shadow on the image I have of coup plotters. In the past I considered reports of such events to be subjects for disinterested analysis; historical tidbits I consumed with the rest of the news. Whatever my feelings were about the justification for a coup d’etat, I always viewed its organizers as either dangerous political zealots or cynical opportunists. This time it’s more complicated.

General Öztürk is someone I knew and respected. I toiled and socialized with his staff. Though he and I did not have a personal connection, my colleagues and I once worked for his success as a NATO commander. We responded to his leadership and adjusted our daily efforts to accommodate his guidance. I find it difficult to view him as cynical or dangerous and it’s even harder for me to categorize his motivations in boxes with simple labels like “right-wing”, “secularist”, “militarist”, et cetera. While Öztürk’s fall has brought Turkish politics home to me in a personal way, the future under Erdogan may do so for millions of others in ways we can only imagine. Reading statements from Ankara in the days since the coup attempt, hoping for cooler heads in Turkey seems forlorn at this moment. Let’s hope I am wrong.

Stranger Pic

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lino,

    Let me first of all thank you for your article; interesting, well-written and to the point. I would like to make a few remarks that portray my own personal thoughts about this “major event”.

    Like you, I was part of that elite team of the White Cell for almost all 2015 JWC exercises. Unfortunately, I had to skip the 2016 cycle because of other commitments (Project Manager for the certification of the EUBG 2016-2) but I am looking forward to returning to the team for the 2017 cycle, starting already in September this year. As a result, I unfortunately did not get to meet and exercise with General Öztürk.

    I, therefore, will not focus on the role of the General. I would like to concentrate on a couple of statements that you make halfway down your article. You state “I don’t support the attempted coup on 15 July. President Erdogan, though unhelpful in many ways, is more or less a democrat and Turkey remains a responsible partner in the international order…for now. Though he may be allowing the erosion of Turkish secularism, he is certainly not the cause of it and he is hardly an Islamist.”

    I have very different views on Erdohan. But let me first confess that I was really hoping the coup would be succesful. When first messages started pooring in that night, I was excited and optimistic that finally the army had decided that “enough is enough” and was going to end the destruction of secularism.

    From that you can already deduct that I have a different view of Mr. Erdohan. I don´t think he is a Democrat at all! Yes, he has been democratically elected and from that perspective he has the authority to execute the powers vested in the Presidency of the State. But since 2014, he has undertaken to expand those powers in order to become the “Sultan of Turkye”, silencing the press, limiting democratic political opposition, constraining judicial powers by intimidating the Constitutional Court and ending peace negotiations with the Kurds, just to name a few of Mr. Erdohan´s “achievements”.

    Maybe he is not an Islamist, but he certainly does his very best to come across as one. He uses his links to manipulate the many Muslim believers in and outside the country and he stimulates this religion whenever he can. To deal with the coup, he used the clerics sending messages from the minarets to mobilize the religious population to hit the streets to oppose the military action that was ongoing.

    In my view, Erdohan is radicalising Turkye. He is rapidly turning what once was a secular state into an Islamic califate. Unfortunately one must realise that this move was, certainly in part, triggered by a stubborn German “No” as the answer to Turkish attempts to become a member of the European Union at a time where developments in Turkye were positive and reforms going into the right direction. And sadly, Mrs. Merkel was the main proponent of that “No”.

    Anyway, time will tell what will become of Turkye. For sure, EU membership will not occur within the next 10 years. And unfortunately, a next coup isn´t going to happen soon either. With the forces cleansed, layers sacked and jailed, critical TV- and radio stations taken off the air and private schools largely closed, opposition to Mr.Erdohan´s politics has been eliminated. His “counterattack” has been decisively succesful and he has now gained total “freedom of maneuver”. What a mess!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lino Miani says:

      Jaap, thank you for that. You and I don’t disagree on much here except perhaps about the degree of Erdogan’s dictatorial urges. I certainly believe he’s a would be tyrant. I’m concerned that his islamist populism will go too far leaving Europe (once again) with a caliphate on its doorstep. I don’t think this is a foregone conclusion however but only time will tell.

      I am very interested in your idea that the radicalization of Turkey can be connected to Germany’s stubborn stance on the EU. I think you may be on to something there.

      As I told another friend this morning: I certainly wouldn’t shed a tear if Erdogan and his vile PM were sidelined but I didn’t think a coup is not the right way to do it. At least it wasn’t on 15 July. Sadly, it may be the only option now but as you point out, that is very unlikely for at least the next decade.


  2. Lino Miani says:

    Some follow on thoughts:

    1) This will weaken Turkey’s resistance to threats from both internal and external sources. The purging of competent leadership from the military and the residual distrust between the military and the political leadership will prevent the best from rising to the top and will inhibit the integration of the military in domestic security. This will affect exercises, planning, training, and decision making about things like responses to terrorism, population resource control, and counterinsurgency. The last is sadly becoming more and more important in Turkey.

    2) The obvious weaknesses in the execution of the coup are not the result of some brilliant conspiracy by Erdogan to stage a fake coup. It is the result of a cultural weakness in the Turkish Army. The problem with the Turkish Army is not one of competence; they can do things very well including planning. Their problem is cultural. No Turkish officer or soldier will ever have a discussion on the merits of anything that comes out of the mouth of an officer that outranks them. If the Captain says it would be a good idea to jump off the Bosphorus bridge, the Lieutenant will not raise an objection even though he knows it’s crazy. This phenomenon is well documented to result in total disconnects in complex operations. In the case of the recent failed coup it had a number of seemingly implausible effects such as platoons blocking the bridge thinking they’re on exercise, a failure to stop government broadcasts after taking the radio station, bombing of Erdogan’s hotel but no effort to capture him, etc. etc.

    Put the conspiracy theories to rest. Taking control of a society in the face of a competent government and a hostile population is not EVER going to go smoothly.


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