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[ANALYSIS] Politicization of the TSK: Lt. Gen. Kahya and the teacup incident

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Fatih Yurtsever*

On Thursday Turkey, Sweden and Finland held a second round of trilateral talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss the potential accession of the two Nordic neighbors to NATO. The meeting was the third round of discussions concerning the Joint Permanent Mechanism established by the Trilateral Memorandum signed at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid.

The meeting at NATO headquarters was considered an essential step towards resolving issues surrounding Turkey’s ratification of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership ahead of the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July. However, a video taken by the Anadolu news agency during the meeting that showed Turkey’s military representative to NATO, Lt. Gen. Göksel Kahya, collecting empty teacups from the table sparked outrage among Turkish citizens on social media.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has come under fire recently for several reasons, including their delayed response to devastating earthquakes on Feb. 6 in Turkey, a public announcement by the Defense Ministry about the hiring of civilians to address the shortage of fighter jet pilots and the video, widely circulated on social media, showing a three-star general collecting empty teacups, which is unprecedented in the history of the TSK because collecting empty teacups like a waiter is considered humiliating behavior, not only for a Turkish general but for any diplomatic official, particularly at such a high-level meeting.

The primary mission of a country’s armed forces is to protect that country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests in all domains — air, land and sea. To achieve this the military must have a credible and effective force that deters potential adversaries from attack and protects the country’s security and interests. To build deterrence, a country’s military must have various capabilities, including advanced weapons systems, robust intelligence and surveillance capabilities and the ability to project power beyond its borders.

The TSK has played an important role in Turkey’s political history. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatürk, and his closest colleagues were generals. Until a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Turkish General Staff and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were among the two most essential institutions determining the course of Turkish foreign policy. The efforts of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to consolidate power and establish an autocratic regime in Turkey have profoundly impacted the institutional structure and effectiveness of the TSK.

The Erdoğan administration significantly changed the promotion system within the TSK, which sparked concern among military experts. The promotion and appointment of generals and admirals were made through the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ). Before July 15, 2016 YAŞ comprised the prime minister, the minister of defense, the chief of general staff, force commanders, the commander of the gendarmerie and the other four-star generals and admirals of the TSK. Since decisions in YAŞ were made by majority vote, the military bureaucracy was more decisive than the political will in promoting and appointing flag officers. The military bureaucracy usually decided on promotions and appointments according to the candidates’ professional careers, achievements and indeed their abilities.

However, in 2016, the Erdoğan administration introduced a new promotion system that gave the president significant control over the appointments of generals and admirals. With the exception of the chief of general staff and force commanders, the other four-star generals and admirals were excluded from YAŞ membership. The vice president and the ministers of finance and treasury, foreign affairs, justice, interior, and education were appointed as new members. With this arrangement, the power in the promotion and appointment of admirals and generals passed from the military bureaucracy to Erdoğan’s government. The changes led to the politicization of the military and undermined its independence. The new system favors officers loyal to the Erdoğan government rather than those best qualified and experienced.

Additionally, the government’s ongoing purge of the military following a coup attempt in 2016 has resulted in the dismissal of thousands of experienced and competent officers, leaving the TSK with a significant loss of capability and capacity. The Turkish Air Force has been struggling with a shortage of fighter pilots in recent years, following the mass dismissal of nearly 1,000 pilots in the wake of the failed coup. Before the coup attempt, the ratio of fighter pilots to fighter jets in the air force was 3:1; following the dismissals, that ratio dropped to just 0.3:1.

In the current situation, the TSK has faced significant challenges in recent years, with changes to the promotion system and the mass dismissal of staff officers following the abortive putsch in 2016 leading to substantial weaknesses in leadership and planning functions. In his memoir, “Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love,” former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shares his assessment of the TSK as follows: “Whether we take the fight against ISIS with the Turkish Armed Forces or with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the level of support we need to provide will not change. Because the TSK’s capabilities and capacity are quite limited.”

According to his biography on NATO’s official website, Lt. Gen. Kahya was promoted to brigadier general in 2010. Under normal circumstances, he should have been promoted to major general in 2014. Still, his time as a one-star was extended twice, and he wasn’t promoted to major general until the first Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting held after the coup attempt in 2016. Between 2017 and 2022, he served in the Ministry of Defense as deputy undersecretary for operations and logistics (2017-2018), director general of defense and security (2018-2019) and secretary-general of the ministry (2019-2022). In 2022 he was promoted to lieutenant general and appointed Turkey’s permanent military representative to NATO. His long tenure at the Ministry of Defense shows that he has good relations with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and President Erdoğan. As such, instead of his military skills and accomplishments, he is now in the spotlight with the video of him collecting empty teacups from the table during a meeting at NATO headquarters. Unfortunately, the fact that generals like Kahya got promotions as a result of their close relationships with politicians, not for their achievements and capabilities, is damaging the TSK’s legacy and raising serious questions about Turkey’s military capabilities, capacity and deterrence. This is, first and foremost, a national security issue and should worry everyone.

Lt. Gen. Kahya, Turkey’s permanent military representative to NATO, has recently been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Despite his long tenure at the Ministry of Defense and close ties with Defense Minister Akar and President Erdogan, his recent public image has been marred by the video showing him collecting empty teacups at a NATO meeting. This has led to concerns about the politicization of the military and the damaging impact on the legacy, capabilities, capacity and deterrence of Turkey’s military power. Kahya’s delayed promotion and appointment history has also been criticized, with experts warning that such politicization is damaging to the military and a national security issue that should concern everyone. While the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO has long been discussed and important meetings have been held, what is expected of him is not to collect empty teacups but to sit at the table and express Turkey’s military views on Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

* 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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