ISTANBUL // The reputation and credibility of the Turkish military are on the line after whistle-blowers within its own ranks told civilian prosecutors that a plan hatched by the army to undermine the government was genuine, despite public assurances by the chief of the army general staff to the contrary.
"My wish is that the things that are written and said at the moment turn out not to be true, turn out to be incorrect," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, told reporters travelling with him on a current trip to Pakistan and Iran, Turkish media reported yesterday. He said he would meet Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, after his return to Turkey. In Ankara, the general staff said it had opened a fresh investigation into the alleged plan, news of which first surfaced in June when it was dismissed by Gen Basbug as a worthless "piece of paper". The "Action Plan for the Fight against Islamist Extremism", signed by Col Dursun Cicek, an officer working in the general staff, and drafted in April, called for a series of covert steps to destabilise Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative government, seen as an Islamist force by many in the strictly secular armed forces.
Given that the military has removed four civilian governments from power since 1960, allegations of yet another army plot against a cabinet in Ankara were taken seriously by Mr Erdogan, whose ruling party filed a court case to find those responsible for the plan. In June, Gen Basbug tried to calm waters by stating that the military would not tolerate anti-democratic activities within their ranks, and the debate died down after it turned out that civilian prosecutors had received only a copy of the destabilisation plan, not the original.
But now an unnamed officer of the general staff has sent the original to prosecutors, according to newspapers that have printed the full text of the officer's accompanying letter. An examination of the plan by forensic experts of the judiciary in Istanbul has concluded that it was indeed signed by Col Cicek, according to media reports. Prosecutors in Istanbul have been investigating the activities of serving and retired army officers in a group named Ergenekon, which is accused of plotting to bring down the Erdogan government by force.
The officer told prosecutors in his letter that the destabilisation plan had been ordered by Gen Hasan Igsiz, who was second in command in the military at the time, and that the hard drives of computers in the general staff offices had been erased after the first reports about the plan appeared. That account has been confirmed by another witness, newspapers reported yesterday. The unnamed officer also provided prosecutors with a second document showing the military was deeply concerned about Mr Erdogan's election victory in 2007, which came only months after the army issued a coup threat against him.
Turkey's military, which is credited with building the republic after the First World War, is the most trusted institution in the country, and pollsters say many people in Turkey's elite think that the army has a right to act against the government if necessary. But even commentators close to the military say the latest revelations have shattered one of the biggest political assets of the army: its credibility.
Generals "can be sure that even people like me, who have regarded the military as the apple of their eye all their lives, have some questions", Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor-in-chief of Hurriyet, Turkey's biggest newspaper, wrote in a column yesterday. Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister in Mr Erdogan's government, called on Gen Basbug to take action against officers involved in the affair. Such demands are highly unusual in Turkey, where the armed forces so far have faced much less public scrutiny than in other western countries.
Another consequence of the latest events is that the image of the Turkish army as a highly professional institution has taken a hit, the columnist Taha Akyol wrote in the Milliyet newspaper. "What a picture of a headquarters where commanders are out of the loop, where secret activities are going on, where information is leaked, information is ordered, information is erased, and where false information is given to commanders."
Since 1997, the last time the military pushed out a government in Ankara, there has been at least one other incident of the army trying to change the political climate in the country by covert means. In 1998, a captured high-ranking member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group, was alleged to have claimed that several well-known journalists in Turkey supported the PKK in return for money. Several prominent commentators lost their jobs because of the statements, which were later revealed to have been fabricated by the military to get rid of the journalists.
Actions like that are a result of the ideological outlook of the military as self-styled guardians of the republic's core values, an attitude that can lead officers to try and steer the public in the direction they see fit. But Turkey's generals had to accept that the days of "social engineering" were over, Akyol wrote. firstname.lastname@example.org