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[ANALYSIS] Major earthquake in Turkey has exposed dysfunction of AFAD and the military

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Fatih Yurtsever*

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey on Monday and was one of the strongest in a century has caused unprecedented damage in the country, exposing the fragility of Turkish government agencies in such disasters.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), established in 2009 under the Interior Ministry, is responsible for coordinating search and rescue operations and relief efforts in the wake of natural disasters. However, it became obvious following Monday’s temblor that AFAD is incapable of conducting effective search and rescue work and coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid to the victims. Rubble from the many thousands of buildings that were flattened was left unattended, leaving thousands of people trapped in the bitter cold. It’s almost as if the earthquake victims were left to their fate, prompting the public to ask, “Where are the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK]?”

Following another powerful earthquake that struck Turkey’s Marmara region on Aug.17, 1999, the TSK immediately organized disaster and crisis management in the earthquake area, coordinated search and rescue operations and relief efforts and transported the injured to the nearest hospitals. So what has changed since the 1999 earthquake? Why didn’t the TSK, with all its capabilities, start participating in the search, rescue and relief efforts immediately after the earthquake?

Turkey’s Disaster Management and Coordination system was changed n 2009 to make a single government agency responsible for coordinating and exercising legal jurisdiction in the event of disasters and emergencies. In the same year the Turkish Parliament passed Law No. 5902, which subordinated AFAD to the Prime Ministry and abolished various agencies under whose purview such events had previously fallen. In addition Turkey adopted a presidential system of governance after a referendum in 2017, which came into force with the presidential election held the following year.

A presidential decree was published in the Official Gazette on July 15, 2018, and AFAD — previously an agency subordinated to the Prime Minister’s Office, which was abolished with the country’s switch from the parliamentary to the presidential system of governance — was re-established as an agency under the Ministry of Interior.

In parallel with the establishment of AFAD, the so-called Protocol on Security, Public Order and Assistance (EMASYA), which was signed between the Turkish General Staff and the Ministry of Interior in 1997, authorizing the TSK to intervene in the event of a natural disaster without waiting for a request from a governor’s office, was revoked in 2010. The TSK had intervened in the Marmara earthquake in 1999 in accordance with the authorization granted to it by this protocol.

Turkey’s disaster management is based on the “Regulation on Disaster and Emergency Response Services” drafted by the presidency and published in the Official Gazette on Feb. 24, 2022, and Turkey’s Disaster Response Plan was also devised by the presidency in accordance with this regulation and published in the Official Gazette on Sept.14, 2022.

Article 25 of the regulation states that governors have to make a request for the use of the TSK for relief purposes during natural disasters. Since the authorization granted by the EMASYA protocol was revoked in 2010, the TSK cannot spontaneously launch search and rescue and relief operations under this regulation.

According to the Turkish Disaster Response Plan, the Ministry of Defense has no direct responsibility to intervene in such situations but has only a supporting role. In other words, in order for the capabilities of the TSK to be used by the Ministry of Defense, the ministry with the primary responsibility must do the necessary planning and ask the Ministry of Defense for approval to use the relevant capabilities of the TSK according to post-disaster planning. For example, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is responsible for transportation services during a natural disaster and must implement its transportation plan in the event of an earthquake and, if necessary, submit a request to the Ministry of Defense through AFAD to use the transportation abilities of the TSK. In this way, the plan identifies a single ministry as being primarily responsible and other ministries and institutions as supporting the responsible ministry for the activities that need to be carried out in the event of a disaster, such as health services, safety, firefighting and the like. But the developments in the aftermath of Monday’s earthquake show that AFAD, responsible for overall coordination and the relevant ministries, failed to implement disaster management plans; in other words, the state has become dysfunctional.

Only 25 to 30 percent of the flattened buildings had been reached by search and rescue teams by the third day after the earthquake. Timely intervention is critical for the survival of victims in such disasters because for every minute lost, a victim may die due to their injuries or hypothermia under the ruins. The weather in the disaster area is extremely cold, making rescue efforts difficult. Another failure in Turkey’s post-quake response was that search and rescue teams that arrived in Turkey from other countries were forced to sit around airports for hours because they had to wait for approval from the government to begin their work in the disaster area. This was a major failure in a situation where every minute counts.

Nevertheless, as the most organized institution in Turkey, the TSK could have started search and rescue operations and debris removal activities with all its resources within the chain of command. Following a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, the command structure of the TSK was changed. The force commands and the chief of general staff were placed under the Ministry of Defense. Former Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar was appointed defense minister by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when the presidential system went into effect. Akar reorganized the TSK in line with the Erdoğan government’s wishes, and the promotion system in the miliary was changed. The promotion and appointment of generals and admirals began to be made based on their loyalty to the Erdoğan government rather than professional competence and performance. Following the coup attempt, most generals and admirals who could have taken the initiative and led in times of chaos, crisis and uncertainty were detained or retired on bogus coup or terrorism charges. Most of the staff officers who formed the strategic mind of the TSK were dismissed. Under these conditions, it was inevitable for the TSK to become dysfunctional.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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