The Kosovo Liberation Army and the Kurdish Workers Party:

A Comparison

Chris Bailey-Woon


The current international system has seen an increasing trend of non-state actors changing the balance of power around the globe.  These groups are defined more along ethnic and religious lines than by the nationalistic sentiments that proved powerful throughout the 20th century.  While many of these groups claim the desire for national sovereignty, their sense of nationhood is based on these ethnic or religious identities.  It is impossible for these groups to conduct conventional warfare against their adversaries, and so they have taken up guerrilla and insurgent tactics to wage battle.  The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) are two insurgent movements that waged both an insurgent and propaganda war against governments that they viewed as tyrannical.

            A precise study of these two organizations shows numerous similarities in tactics, ideology, and social composition within their societies.  Further, both the Turkish and Serb governments conducted violent and aggressive counterinsurgency campaigns to stop both organizations.  Despite the similarities, the outcomes for the two organizations were drastically different.  While the KLA ultimately achieved its goal of a separate and unified Kosovo, the PKK was virtually destroyed in 2000 without being able to create an independent Kurdish homeland in Turkey.  The chief reason for the different outcomes was the different perceptions by international communities, particularly the United States, of the insurgent movements and the regimes they were battling.  To understand the contrasting outcomes properly, an in depth analysis of the two situations is necessary.  The first section identifies the ideology of both organizations, and how it centered on the notion of liberation to galvanize support from the general population.  The second section discusses how the policy of de-escalation utilized by Turkey and ignored by Serbia, was key to marginalizing the effectiveness of the PKK while allowing the KLA to flourish. And the third section addresses how the United States’ role helped determine what outside aid and support could be counted on by the PKK and KLA.           

Ideology of Liberation

To understand any revolutionary movement fully, one must evaluate the ideology and principles that shaped the revolutionaries’ struggle.  As Bruce Hoffman explains, ideology is the driving force behind the success or failure of an insurgency.  It is at the ideological level that the PKK and KLA are most comparable.  Both organizations shaped the image of their struggle in terms of nationalist goals impeded by what each perceived as an illegitimate government.  While both the PKK and KLA’s ideologies were inspired by Marxism and Leninism, both movements quickly shed the strict and rigid Marxist label to create a new and unique ideology.  This ideology was not based on religious or economic categories, as were revolutionary movements of the past, but instead, the PKK and KLA embraced ethnic liberation as the definitive goal. 

            Marxist-Leninist ideology was attractive to insurgent groups that found themselves under oppressive and violent dictatorships in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.  The ideology spread among insurgency movements worldwide during that period.  The Marxist ideology’s popularity was based largely on the notion that the only way to gain true independence from an oppressive state was to initiate a radical movement, starting in the general population, working outside the law against those maintaining the status quo, “Beginning with small, spontaneous strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and riots, the revolutionary movement quickly coalesces into a more militant, organized and unified force for the overthrow of the ruling class.”[1]  The Marxist ideology allowed those in poverty to break from the social norms that bound them, calling for each individual to show their discontent through action, even violent action if necessary.  This philosophy of armed conflict against oppressive regimes was attractive to any group that lacked the financial or military capability to launch successful armed conflict against the government.  A Marxist movement could move across a population, recruiting and molding the struggle, all while being nearly invisible to the oppressive regime.  Marxist movements attained this invisibility through working at the grassroots level, guerilla fighters blended in with their respective populations, not being detected by government forces easily.  The success of Marxist ideology would prove short-lived, however, as the international scene divided itself into two polar ideologies, Liberalism and Communism. Due to the power struggle between these two ideologies, represented in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, any group that took on the Marxist identity automatically became a threat to the West and its interests.  The PKK and KLA understood that expressly adopting Marxist ideology would automatically alienate their causes from potentially sympathetic Western powers, and so they created their own ideology distinct from strict Liberalism or Marxism. 

            The single unifying theme that could connect both the Kurdish and Albanian struggles to the outside world was liberation.  Liberation ideologies avoided growing disillusionment with Marxism. “These new ideologies seek liberation from forms of oppression and domination that earlier ideologies have, in the liberationists’ view, wrongly neglected or overlooked.”[2]  Ball and Dagger outline five elements that define a liberation ideology; (1) each addresses a particular audience; (2) adherents of the ideology have been mistreated or oppressed by a dominant group; (3) the goal is to liberate the oppressed group from both “external” and “internal” restraints; (4) they attempt to “raise the consciousness” of the oppressed population to change their outlooks that have contributed to their own oppression and victimization; and (5) they attempt to liberate the oppressors from their own illusion of their superiority and recognize the oppressed as equal.  The first two elements, identification of a particular audience and the need for oppression by a dominant group, are discussed first, as they are relatively straight forward for both the PKK and the KLA.  It is the last three elements that are more complex, because they deal much more directly with the precise ideology that any liberation movement attempts to instill in both those it is trying to liberate, and those that are impeding that liberation.

Creating an Identity: the Oppressed and the Oppressor

Defining the oppressed and the oppressor in a society focuses on common identities in the relevant society.  As Ball and Dagger point out, “the members of each of these audiences are not people who chose to be in that audience…instead, liberation ideologies address themselves to groups of people who share certain characteristics, such as race or sex or sexual orientation, by the accident of birth.”[3]  In both the PKK and KLA, each group argued that it was the key representative of its ethnic class.  The PKK’s first goal after its creation in 1978 was to be the sole spokesperson of the Kurdish social and political identity in Turkey.[4]  The PKK achieved this goal through targeted attacks on competing Kurdish and leftist separatist groups, the creation of a significant grassroots propaganda machine that filtered into the majority of Kurdish areas, and the promotion of a Kurdish identity.[5]  This move allowed the PKK to consolidate its power base within the Kurdish population and allowed it to develop into the only pathway for Kurdish independence.  The PKK achieved the second element by focusing on the distinction between being a Kurd and not being a Turk.  It was not difficult, at the time, for the PKK to popularize the oppression of Kurds because of several Turkish policies including; the “Turkification” of city and family names, strict rules against using the native Kurdish language, and the suppression of Kurdish cultural activities.[6]  The PKK was effectively able to strengthen the Kurdish identity and to emphasize the oppressive nature of the Turkish government.

The KLA also relied on a clear ethnic identity as the ideology that would become the basis of its armed struggle.  The social and political atmosphere of Eastern Europe drastically changed with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which spawned a multitude of competing interests that all laid claim to be the new face of the region.  The KLA tapped into a pan-Albanian cultural identity as the basis for its struggle.   According to Perritt’s book Kosovo Liberation Army, “The emphasis on Albanian ethnicity, culture, and nationalist aspirations undercut competing impulses favoring assimilation into the emerging Yugoslav identity.”[7]  Much like the PKK in Turkey, the KLA had to redefine itself to escape the Marxist foundation and to create a new face for Albanian nationalism.  As for the second element, the Milosevic regime easily filled the oppressor role by exalting Serb identity over Albanian identity.  The KLA portrayed Serbia as a foreign oppressor, and the chief obstacle to Albanian’s gaining national autonomy.  Negative sentiments about the Serbian government went back decades, and the KLA could easily mold and shape these perceptions to build support in the modern context.   

Reeducating the Oppressed and the Oppressor 

            One of the most difficult challenges for any revolutionary ideology is to ensure that each actor recognizes and internalizes its ideology.  When they do so, they fundamentally change the way they view themselves and those around them.  This principle serves as the basis for Ball and Dagger’s remaining elements of liberation ideology: the liberation of the oppressed from external and internal restraints, and the reeducation of the oppressed and oppressor within their shared setting.[8]  Ball and Dagger label as “external” restraints are the highly visible restraints of the oppressor, such as restrictions on religious, ethnic, or other social freedoms.  These restraints, however, only skim the surface of the real conflict for Ball and Dagger; for a liberation ideology to be effective, it must also correct the internal restraints of the community.  Internal restraints are those that the oppressed force upon themselves, which allow them to be continually oppressed.  “Internal restraints are those beliefs and attitudes that oppressed people have come to accept as true, and which serve to inhibit their quest for freedom or liberation.”[9]  Typically it is much simpler for an insurgency to highlight the tyrannical actions of their oppressor; the actions are visible and tangible, and can be easily identified by those being oppressed.  Internal restraints, however, are more elusive because people rationalize explanations for their current state.  It is at this level that revolution is most difficult to foster.  The movement must convince individuals that their current social state under the dominance of the oppressors is not justified, acceptable, or unavoidable.

            The PKK was initially unsuccessful in reeducating its target population.  While the PKK itself did not have significant internal restraints to overcome, it needed to demonstrate to the larger Kurdish population that the struggle for autonomy and a separate Kurdish state was a worthwhile and achievable goal.  Decades before the PKK was ever created, Kurdish nationalism was fully developed.  “The attempts to erase Kurdish identity were futile.  Kurds, as well as other groups who resisted the authoritarian policies…, continued to challenge the state and the Kemalist [Turkish nationalist] ideology.”[10]  Though the Turkish government attempted sweeping reforms to modernize and create a unified Turkish state, it was never able to extinguish the Kurdish identity completely.  Although the spirit of resistance was strong in the Kurdish community, the Kurds lacked a clear and unified direction to channel their frustration against the Turkish government.  This lack of unity and guidance made the PKK as the catalyst for insurgency.  The PKK, however, was never able to solidify an aspiration for a separate Kurdish state.  “Only a minority of the Kurds see the PKK as their main representative organ, and the majority do not desire a separate Kurdish state.  A significant number of Kurdish people have integrated into Turkish society.”[11]  The PKK played on the desires for religious and cultural freedom already present, yet was unable to foster a greater desire for a separate Kurdish state.  The relative popularity of the PKK did not translate into support for a separate state and so its ideology failed to motivate the greater Kurdish population to undertake a united armed struggle.

The PKK also failed to transform the mindset of the Turkish government, the oppressor, to redefine the Kurds as a distinct group that warranted autonomy.  The core ideal of the Turkish nationalist movement was a secular and modern state free from the divisiveness of religion, race, and ethnicity.  This policy meant that anything expressly Kurdish, language, religious practices, cultural traditions, was expressly prohibited.  “In order to enforce the principle of secularism, religious traditions and institutions were abolished and banned and since Kurdish nationalism and the religion of Islam were closely intertwined, the exclusion of Islam resulted in an exclusion of national identity.”[12]  The PKK and other militant Kurds were driven to rebellion due to the hostility of the Turkish nationalist movement.  “Kurdish and Turkish nationalism developed along parallel lines and were shaped by each other and in the same political context.”[13]  The two movements were inherently antagonistic to one another because the Turkish goal of “one state, one nation, and one language” flew in the face of Kurdish identity.  The PKK was unable to achieve significant military success against the Turkish government which limited its popularity or successful propaganda within mainstream Turkish society.  The Turkish population wholeheartedly accepted the notion that the Turkish government represented unity and nationalism while the PKK represented murderous terrorists.  Thus, despite twenty years of fierce combat, the PKK was never able to transform the unified Turkish mentality.  For the 1970s and 1980s, the Turks were successful in largely ignoring the Kurdish plight.  Despite significant success by the PKK in the 1990s with the recognition of the Kurdish conflict, Turkey was able to maintain the posture that the PKK was a terrorist problem only, and not a broad-based fight for Kurdish liberation.  As is discussed below, the Turkish government’s main concessions to the Kurds came because of relations with the European Union, not in response to any great victory by the PKK.  Thus the Turks were quite effective at maintaining their notion of secularism while marginalizing the PKK’s liberation ideology.

Much like the PKK in the Kurdish population, the KLA had to demonstrate that it was the voice of Albanian resistance in Kosovo first.  After the end of the Cold War, former Soviet states competed for what form and shape the region would take.  Regional actors, including Milosevic at times, pushed the idea of a common multiethnic Yugoslav identity to compete against the KLA’s Albanian identity.[14]  The KLA had to specifically demonstrate to the Albanian population that the Milosevic regime did not view the Albanians as equals or partners, and their inclusion into Serbia inhibited their pursuit of an ethnic distinctiveness.  By promoting Albanian culture and ethnicity, the KLA was able to effectively steer the Albanian population away from the idea of a multiethnic Yugoslav identity, while developing the value of resistance against the regime that was hindering their realization of a unified Kosovo.  The next significant hurdle for the KLA was convincing the Albanian population that unarmed struggle was ineffective, and that the KLA could actually achieve military success against the Serbs, “The KLA had to persuade the population that armed revolt would not simply be crushed.”[15]  Even if a population is supportive of a resistance, the necessary step of galvanizing support into an armed struggle is difficult if the population view that it is impossible to win.  As Perritt points out, the greatest gift to the KLA in this regards was the 1997 collapse of the Albanian government, “The 1997 collapse of the Albanian government…helped energize the Kosovar Albanians.  They thought, ‘If they can do it, so can we.’”[16]  With the collapse of the neighboring Albanian government, the population of Kosovo saw the real possibility of a successful armed struggle, even against a militarily superior enemy.  Satisfying Ball and Dagger’s fourth element, the Albanian population’s consciousness was changed to an understanding that an armed resistance was possible, necessary, and most importantly, the KLA was the catalyst for the liberation of Kosovo.

While the KLA’s ideology was effective at rallying the Albanian population in Kosovo, they did not take significant steps to reeducate the oppressor, the final element of Ball and Dagger’s liberation ideology.  In the cases of both the KLA and PKK, the oppressors had a well organized propaganda machine that advanced their own ideology against the resistance movements.   Because of this, the KLA did not have to take significant steps to reorient the Serbs or the Milosevic regime.  Instead, as discussed below, the KLA focused their reeducation on other countries and regimes, compelling other nations to recognize the Kosovar Albanians right to Kosovo and to align themselves against the Milosevic regime.  The Milosevic regime, unlike the Turkish government, never saw the inclusion of their significant minority as the best solution to the conflict.  Instead, the goal of the Milosevic regime was for the expulsion of all ethnic Albanians, creating a Serb majority in Kosovo.  “[Milosevic’s strategy was] to reverse changes in the ethnic composition that had caused the Albanian population of the province to grow substantially, in relation to the Serb population.”[17]  Due to the regime’s strong ethnic rhetoric, the KLA did not take significant steps to sway the general Serb population to recognizing the Albanian national movement, but did use targeted attacks against Serb police and military offices to show their resistance to the regime.

Government Reaction:  Turkish and Serb Response

The success or failure of an insurgency group is largely dictated by the effectiveness of the counterinsurgent measures taken by the government that is being attacked.  The Turkish government’s response to the PKK was similar to Serbia’s response to the KLA initially.  The Turkish government, however, transformed its response to the PKK by implementing a policy of de-escalation, limiting the effectiveness and popularity of the PKK message, while Serbia openly confronted the KLA on the KLA’s terms and eventually escalated the conflict further by inflicting severe policies of ethnic cleansing on the entire Albanian population.  An in-depth assessment of Turkey’s and Serbia’s responses to insurgent activity demonstrates the importance of restraint and reform in counterinsurgency.

Since the creation of the modern Turkish state in the 1920’s, the nation has tried to maintain a unified and homogenous culture within its borders.  In the 1970’s, the PKK was created, calling for the creation of a separate Kurdish state.  The nation’s goals of unity left the government in Ankara with no choice but to respond with significant military action against the PKK.  Turkey’s strength had been built on the notion of a unified and powerful Turkish identity, and the Kurdish movement was just one of several separatist movements that threatened the integrity of the Turkish identity.  This retaliation against the PKK began with the military coup in September of 1980.  The military launched significant attacks on Kurdish areas where suspected members or sympathizers of the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.[18]   The Turkish government’s strongest steps towards marginalizing the Kurdish movement did not come from arrests or military action however, but through legislation passed to stop any Kurdish collective identity from forming,

“In Turkey’s reestablished democracy, Kurdish activists saw no reason to believe there was room for them to operate.  There also was no reason to think that even their basic, ethnic identity would be recognized.  The new constitution the military rulers prepared stated that every citizen of Turkey was a Turk, another named the state language as Turkish, and another said that this article could never be changed.”[19]

The Turkish government’s central goal was to dismantle the PKK by refusing to give credibility to the ethnic definitions that the PKK used to express their struggle against Turkey.  This policy of conscious denial was quite successful until the 1991 Gulf War when the world witnessed the atrocities being committed against the Kurdish minority in Iraq.  It was at this point that the KLA became the most emboldened and the Turkish government most brutal by evacuating and burning nearly 3,000 villages that harbored or aided the PKK.[20]  Thousands of Kurdish villagers were forced out of homes and farms, giving new life and support for the PKK.  With the increased military action by both sides, especially by Turkey, international pressure forced Turkey to recognize the PKK as more than mere terrorists.  At this point there was no denying the Kurdish minority within Turkish borders, and Turkey was faced with how to best handle this new Kurdish reality.

            Turkey now faced a burgeoning and increasingly radicalized PKK that had the support of the Kurdish population of Turkey.  The Turkish government was fortunate to quickly learn that violent ethnic cleansing like their forced evacuations and destruction of villages, only empowered and strengthened the PKK.  Despite the PKK’s dominant position, the Turkish government was able to forestall certain disaster and actually defeat the PKK by deescalating the conflict.  Asa Lundgren outlines three key factors that allowed Turkey to defeat the PKK: 1) the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, 2) Turkey’s being given candidate status at the Helsinki European Council, and 3) the Islamic Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory in the 2002 elections.[21]  The PKK’s first sign of defeat was the arrest of their leader Abdullah Ocalan.  Ocalan had served as the leader of the PKK since its creation in the 1970s and his capture was a grave blow to the rest of the PKK leadership and to the morale of the Turkish Kurds in general.  The biggest blow to the PKK, however, came from Ocalan himself.  At his trial, Ocalan immediately called for a halt to all military action by the PKK, announced a call for peace, and for the PKK to withdraw from Turkey and give up their armed struggle against the state.[22]  Ocalan continued by not only stating that the PKK had gone too far in the struggle for Kurdish recognition, but he also gave a public apology to the Turkish soldiers killed by the PKK without even a mention of the of Kurdish civilians and PKK members that had been killed by the Turkish military.[23]  This complete turnaround shocked the PKK as well as the rest of the Turkish Kurds.  Ocalan’s critics labeled the move as nothing more than Ocalan trying to save himself while his supporters claimed he was simply attempting to find a peaceful end to the conflict.  As a result of Ocalan’s consolidation of power in the 1980’s, there was no effective leadership apparatus to replace Ocalan or represent a shift from his new pro-Turkey stance.  Although the majority of Kurds disagreed with Ocalan’s actions, he continued to serve as the voice of the Kurdish population because there was not a viable leader to replace him, and he still held too much clout within the PKK.

            Turkey’s naming as a candidate for EU membership, Lundgren’s second factor for the failure of the PKK, could not have come at a better time for Turkey in the fall of 1999.  Turkey had captured and tried Ocalan only months before the Helsinki meeting and had given Ocalan the death penalty for treason against the state.  At the Helsinki meeting, the EU announced that Turkey was a candidate country for the European Union but on the condition that Turkey take steps to correct its human rights record, especially in regard to the Kurds.  In response to its potential membership status, Turkey began making significant concessions to the Kurds.  Though many of these concessions were in name only and would never provide for substantial Kurdish autonomy, the move gave the Turkish government the legitimacy needed for the international community to continue to ignore the plight of the Turkish Kurds.[24]  The Turkish government did however pass legislation allowing Kurdish language classes, radio, television broadcasts, and cultural festivals.  These concessions, though not done for the benefit of the Kurds or in direct response to the PKK, changed the social and political landscape of Turkey to the point where the PKK lost its basis for armed struggle against the Turkish government.

            The third factor, the AK party’s overwhelming victory in 2002, is likely the most important factor, in light of its role in opening up the Turkish political arena to the Kurds and other minority groups.  The AK party’s core constituency is based in the religious conservative segments of Turkish society.  The AK party won the 2002 election on the platform that they would ease the strict rules on secularism and allow for increased religious and ethnic freedoms for the population.  This platform, though not directly in support of the Kurds, paved the way for the significant legislation that passed to appease members of the European Union, by demonstrating that Turkey was dedicated to curing their human rights violations.  Thus, the AK party became the central means for the recognition of the Kurds as a distinct people within the nation of Turkey.  It was these three factors that allowed the Turkish government to marginalize the PKK while subconsciously fulfilling many of the aspirations that led to the PKK’s creation.

            Unlike the Turkish ideology that accepted the Kurds as Turks in ethnicity and nationality, Serbia viewed the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo as a distinct group that if could not be controlled, should be removed.  In contrast to the Turkish response to the PKK, Slobodan Milosevic’s retaliation against the KLA became radical in the ethnic cleansing of the entire Albanian population, having the effect of consolidating both domestic and international support for the KLA.  There are two central reasons why the Milosevic regime was ultimately unsuccessful against the KLA: 1) Milosevic’s failure to sign the Rambouillet agreement, and 2) Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Albanians.  Milosevic made a serious miscalculation by not signing the Rambouillet agreement.  The Rambouillet conference was a possible peace conference orchestrated by United States Secretary of State Madeline Albright.  As the agreement stood, Milosevic would have to accept a separate Kosovo, the inclusion of NATO forces, and a redeveloped KLA.[25]  The agreement was unacceptable to Milosevic, and it was the image of Milosevic denying the opportunity for peace that was the catalyst for KLA support both domestically and internationally.  If he had signed the agreement, the general Albanian population would have been in much the same situation that the Kurds were in Turkey after the AK party passed reform legislation; they would have had many of their initial concerns and issues with the government addressed in a public forum.  “Agreement by Milosevic at Rambouillet would have facilitated the conclusion by the critical mass of public opinion in Kosovo that the Rugova approach was the right one…they [general public of Kosovo] would have seen no need to reject Rugova and to place fundamental reliance in the KLA.”[26]  Milosevic had rightly kept the majority of his attacks against the KLA and its clear supporters, and so the public had not yet been completely swayed by the KLA’s use of violence. By not signing the Rambouillet agreement, however, Milosevic created the image that his real conflict was not with the KLA, but with all of Kosovo.  

            Milosevic’s second mistake, a policy of ethnic cleansing, sealed his fate both in the domestic and international arena.  Milosevic began his policy of ethnic cleansing in 1998 and throughout the following months was able to drive many Albanians out of Kosovo through forced displacement, executions, and detention.[27]  The Milosevic regime was unable to isolate or disrupt the KLA leadership, and unlike the PKK, the KLA had a number of seasoned leaders all ready to fill in any gaps that the Serb intelligence created.  Thus, Milosevic turned to ethnic cleansing in hopes of stamping out the KLA.  While Milosevic may have achieved his short term goals of expelling the KLA, this policy proved the best tool for the KLA’s recruitment of new members, “Each act of repression potentially converted another member of the Kosovar Albanian population into a resister motivated by a defiant impulse.”[28]  Milosevic alienated the population to the point where the only outcome possible was violence, and so the population turned towards the insurgency both for protection and for retaliation against Milosevic’s brutality. 

            There are two key differences between the Turkish and Serb reaction to the insurgency threat.  The first is the underlying ideology that defined the boundaries and measures taken by the Turkish and Serb governments.  The second significant difference is the regimes uses of popular support and popular opinion in framing the conflict.  The first significant difference between the two regimes is apparent through their original goals.  Turkey saw the Kurdish population as a part of the Turkish identity, and thus any form of complete ethnic cleansing was out of the question.  In contrast, Milosevic’s regime was not interested in incorporating the Albanians but saw the complete movement of the Albanian population out of Kosovo as a success for the regime.  It was the difference in ideology that led to the second difference between the two regimes.  While Turkey committed some of the same actions of ethnic cleansing as Milosevic, especially the use of detention and village clearing, Turkey was sure to never frame the conflict in ethnic terms to the media.  They always maintained that the PKK was nothing more than a terrorist organization that was trying to splinter the social fabric of the Turkish nation.  Milosevic was not so clever, and instead framed the conflict exactly how the KLA wanted, in ethnic terms that alienated the general Albanian population away from Serbia and into supporting the KLA.  It was this ethnic image that led to Milosevic not being able to sign the Rambouillet agreement.  The AK party in Turkey did not fall victim to the same rigidity that Milosevic fell into, but was flexible enough to adopt reform policies that in title solved many of the Kurdish questions, without having to give any significant practical concessions to the Kurds.  This allowed Turkey to maintain their credibility in the international arena and further isolated the PKK. 

United States Pressure

            In both Turkey and Kosovo, the United States response to the domestic conflicts was essential to the success of the KLA and the failure of the PKK.  An important factor in the United States response is whether a group is labeled a terrorist organization.  Being defined as a terrorist organization can have devastating effects on funding, recruitment, and overall support from the international community.  In Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism, he points out that defining who is a “terrorist” is incredibly difficult and typically subject to the political atmosphere at the time.[29]  Bruce Hoffman however does provide characteristics that can separate terrorists from other non-state actors, namely guerilla or insurgency groups.  Guerrillas and insurgents typically consist of large numbers of armed combatants who operate as cohesive military units who attack enemy military forces, attempt to seize areas of land, and are “involved in informational and psychological warfare efforts to mobilize popular support in a struggle against an established national government.”[30]  Although these characteristics are typically not found in terrorist organizations, Hoffman points out that some terrorist groups like Hezbollah, FARC, and the Tamil Tigers are factions with the attributes of a guerrilla unit but are normally considered terrorist organizations.  The one unifying theme across all movements that use violence to further their cause is that none view themselves as terrorists.  “The terrorist, by contrast, will never acknowledge that he is a terrorist and moreover will go to great lengths to evade and obscure any such reference or connection.”[31]  As Bruce Hoffman points out, and both the KLA and PKK exemplified, any group that uses violence to further its political or social aims does not consider themselves a terrorist and fights adamantly to not be labeled as such by the international community.  The KLA and PKK sought to avoid the label of terrorist, but it was the international community that ultimately decided.

            Since the PKK’s creation in the mid 1970s, they have been plagued with underfunding and lack of substantial strategic support from foreign aid.  This lack of support is largely a cause of the regional political atmosphere rather than any clear denunciation of the PKK.  Ethnic Kurds make up a significant minority in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and the success of Kurdish nationalism in any one country is viewed as a threat by all others.  It is this principle that has guided both the regional powers and the United States to constantly attempt to maintain the status quo in regards to relations with the Kurds.  This status quo, however, was shattered by the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Dr. Ersin Kalaycioglu of Sabanci University points out that the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War was the initial schism between Turkey and the U.S., but it was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that cemented strife between the two nations.[32]  By creating a defacto Kurdistan on Turkey’s southern border, the U.S. created a safe zone where the PKK could benefit from on sympathetic Iraqi Kurdish support, yet the PKK has not translated the Iraqi Kurdish safe zone into any meaningful military success.[33]  Though Turkey has largely marginalized the PKK since the capture of Ocalan in 1999, this breathing space in northern Iraq has meant the survival of the PKK.  Though much of the international communities, including the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, label the PKK as a terrorist organization, the Turks have not received help in combating the organization.  “The Iraqi Kurds refuse to get involved; the United States has so far demurred support… and [the U.S.] has said it is fighting a global war on terror, yet it refuses to fight the PKK.”[34]  The United States has taken the clear stance against the goals of Turkey largely due to the fact that the only secure and blossoming area of Iraq is in the Kurdistan region.  Any provocative actions in the area threaten both the stability and support of the Iraqi Kurds that are viewed as the U.S.’s closest ally in the country.  This has created breathing space for the PKK; however, it has not translated into any substantial victories for their cause.  The U.S. and the rest of the international community continue to label the PKK as a terrorist organization, and even the Iraqi Kurds have made concessions to Turkey for small military incursions into Kurdistan to route and attack PKK bases.  The future of the PKK is now invariably tied to the success or failure of Iraq, because the increased sovereignty of Iraqi Kurdistan will only increase the PKK’s abilities to launch attacks within Turkey, but will also weaken stability in region.

            Though the United States has been largely mute in support or condemnation of the PKK, the U.S. took a clear stance in support of the KLA in its battles against the Serb regime.  This success was due in part to the KLA’s core goal of eliciting international support, but the key catalyst was the United States condemnation of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing tactics.  “Forceful U.S. leadership and popular political hostility to Milosevic’s occupation, rather than international law or multilateral diplomatic structures alone, brought about intervention and eventual KLA success.”[35]  The international community, namely the U.S., witnessed the brutal human rights atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia and was bent on preventing the same from occurring in Kosovo.  The reality on the ground in Kosovo differed greatly from that in Turkey with the PKK.  Where the PKK had to deal with the regional antagonism towards a united Kurdish front, the KLA and the Kosovo Albanians were careful to frame their agenda in strictly nationalist terms, steering clear from any pan-Albanian identity.  It was the human rights sentiment in the West coupled with the KLA’s media program that solidified support against the Milosevic regime.  Unlike the PKK, the KLA invested significant time and resources into establishing a strong media message that was propelled by the international media depicting the events on the ground in Kosovo.  The KLA focused their media agenda on showing the brutality of the Milosevic regime, the resolve of the KLA as an organization, and how the KLA represented the best possibility for the security and freedom of the Albanian population in Kosovo.      


            Despite the PKK and KLA’s strong similarity in liberation ideology and doctrine, only the KLA was able to prove effective at achieving their goal of national sovereignty.  This disparity is largely owed to the effectiveness of the Turkish government’s de-escalation policy and concessions coupled with the United States’ stance on the effect a sovereign Kurdish state would have on the greater region.  In contrast, the Milosevic regime’s ultimate downfall was its own decision to ethnically cleanse the Albanian population which galvanized United States support for the KLA and its goal of a unified Kosovo. The effectiveness of an insurgency movement is rooted in both their ability to relate and empower the population it claims to represent, as well as connect and relate to the greater international community.  Through an effective liberation ideology and an international mindset, an insurgency movement has the ability to redefine their world based on their terms.    

[1] Terrence Ball & Richard Dagger, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal 135 (2004).

[2] Ball & Dagger, supra, at 201.

[3] Ball & Dagger, supra, at 202.

[4] Bill Park, Turkey’s Policy Towards Northern Iraq: Problems and Perspectives 18 (2005).

[5] Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence 36 (2007).

[6] Park, supra, at 17.

[7] Hank Perritt, Kosovo Liberation Army 30 (2008).

[8] Ball & Dagger, supra, at 202.

[9] Id.

[10] Asa Lundgren, Unwelcome Neighbour: Turkey’s Kurdish Policy 46 (2007).

[11] Mahmood Monshipouri, “Exploring the Dynamics of Human Rights and Reform: Iran, Pakistan, and TurkeyHuman Rights and Societies in Transition 234 (2004).

[12] Lundgren, supra, at 46.

[13] Id. at 43

[14] Perritt, supra, at 30.

[15] Id. at 31.

[16] Id. at 31.

[17] Id. at 55.

[18] Marcus, supra, at 53.

[19] Id. at 85

[20] Lundgren, supra, at 48.

[21] Lundgren, supra, at 52.

[22] Marcus, supra, at 285.

[23] Id. at 285.

[24] Id. at 293.

[25] Perritt, supra, at 151.

[26] Id. at 58.

[27] Id. at 54.

[28] Id. at 55.

[29] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism 20-23 (2005).

[30] Id. at 35.

[31] Id. at 22.

[32] Dr. Ersin Kalaycioglu, Professor at Sabanci University, Address at Yeditepe University (June 13th, 2008).

[33] Id.

[34] Marcus, supra, at 304.

[35] Perritt, supra, at 138.