MESOP FIRST SOLID STATISTIC WHICH EXISTS : Nobody Knows How Many Have Died in the Turkey-PKK Conflict

By Noah Arjomand  – Columbia University 2016

If you have been following news of the resurgent fight between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), you have probably read that “some” or “more than” 40,000 have died since 1984. Indeed, the reference number of 40k killed seems to be one of the few things on which pro-Turkish government paper Yeni Şafak, Iraqi Kurdish agency Rudaw, Iranian state Press TV, and the BBC, as well as Turkish politicians known to escalate their debates into parliament-chamber brawls, all agree on when talking about the conflict. But where does that number come from? How are death tolls of complex insurgencies calculated, and what makes journalists converge around a number as authoritative?

The PKK was founded in 1978 and launched its first attack on a Turkish military outpost in 1984. The conflict devastated Turkey’s southeast in the 1990s before a period of relative calm that followed the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. After years of a tentative peace process, violence in the conflict once again flared in July 2015 and has continued for the past year with many killed. Fears have mounted of re-escalation to ‘90s-level brutality. But to know just how the toll of the current fighting compares with other periods of the insurgency, we would need to know who was killed when in the 32 years since the PKK launched its first attack. And calculating instrastate war casualties is always difficult.

The first problem is deciding whom to count. Should Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces who fought the PKK in the 1990s be counted in the toll as Turkish proxies? Should the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) casualties be counted with the PKK’s, when the Turkish government claims the PYD is a wing of the PKK and the US government claims they are separate organizations (in order to avoid looking hypocritical in training and equipping the PYD to fight terrorism (i.e. ISIS) while it continues to call the PKK a terrorist organization)? Choosing which of these “borderline” cases to include is an inherently political decision.

When it comes to deaths within Turkey’s borders, there are also questions of whether to count hundreds of disappearances, bodies in mass graves yet unopened, and thousands of unsolved murders and suspicious suicides and deaths in custody. Paramilitary groups linked to the Turkish state are widely believed to have committed many of those murders with impunity as part of the state’s anti-PKK strategy. Do their victims count in the conflict’s death toll? Turkey’s parliament, for one, answered no in 2013, when its human rights investigation commission discussed between 6,904 and 17,500 “unresolved” deaths but chose not to include them in the 35,576 it concluded were killed in the conflict. Journalists reported that headline 35k+ figure but, as far as I have found, none delved into the parliamentary report’s pages deeply enough to comment on the thousands left out of the total.

Meanwhile, deaths caused by the Civil Protection Units (YPS), who fought Turkish security forces in urban battles in the southeast in 2015–2016, and by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), who have targeted both civilians and security forces with deadly bombings since 2005, usually are counted by journalists, NGOs, and the Turkish government, despite both organizations’ questionable claims of independence from the PKK.

Counts of the dead, Ümit Efe told me, “have always been a means of psychological warfare.” Ms. Efe is a long-time employee of İHD and then TİHV, NGOs that critics accuse of being pro-PKK and more than a dozen of whose members are counted among victims of unsolved murders. She told me that since the late 1980s, İHD has kept track of casualties by following news reports and court cases and interviewing relatives of the dead and witnesses to killings, and it had always been clear that “the state never included the disappeared people and those in mass graves” in its official counts and “never gave full numbers about the soldiers and village guards who had died.”

According to Hugh Pope, who was a reporter for Reuters in the late 1980s and 1990s before heading the International Crisis Group’s Turkey office, casualty numbers reported by state-run Anadolu Agency were fairly reliable in past years, although spokesmen and politicians often made gross exaggerations about numbers of PKK fighters killed: “Turkey is a place where there is a lot of good information…but the actual aggregation of it is done in very varied manners. And you have got to be careful not to mix…the sound state statistics [with] political-rhetorical figures which are usually given in response to some horrible thing… [after which] politicians feel emotionally obliged to respond because they’re at the funeral.” Mr. Pope told me that numbers tended to be most inflated when it came to large-scale Turkish military operations against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Inconsistency, whether in politicians’ and generals’ speeches or in official statistics, is the rule rather than the exception. The Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry, and regional governorate have all issued seemingly precise but conflicting figures for deaths in the region of the southeast under state of emergency governance from 1987–2002.

Map of the 1987–2002 State of Emergency Region Governorate. Source:ğanüstü_Hâl_Bölge_Valiliği

In some cases, officials seem to inflate or deflate the number they reference based on the crowd they’re addressing. In the space of a few months in 2008–2009, for instance, Chief of the General Staff İlker Başbuğ told a mainly Kurdish audience in Diyarbakır that “the number of people we have lost is around 30–35,000 (emphasis added),” issued a statement tallying over 44k killed, and vaunted in a speech to military academy cadets that more than 40k PKK terrorists alone had been “neutralized.”

Compounding the confusion is the state’s and mainstream media’s use of the Orwellian term “neutralized” (etkisiz hale getirilmek) to refer to PKK losses. In the Turkish military’s and politicians’ statements, “neutralized” usually includes killed, wounded, surrendered and captured in battle, although sometimes “neutralized” just means killed. Also, in official statements, “terrorists” sometimes refers exclusively to PKK members but often includes members of other groups such as ISIS. Yet numbers of “neutralized terrorists” are often misinterpreted by the Turkish and international media, on whom independent data aggregators such as the Uppsala Data Conflict Program in turn base their attempts to tally deaths in the conflict. This is similar to the problem with the word “casualty” in English, which properly includes those either killed or injured but is often misunderstood by journalists and laypeople to refer to deaths.

For example, on March 28 of this year, President Erdoğan announced in a speech at a military academy that 355 security personnel and 5,359 terrorists had been neutralized since July 2015 (as reported in a pro-government newspaper under the headline “Erdoğan: 5,359 Terrorists Killed” [my emphasis]). State-run Anadolu Agency produced a detailed breakdown of Erdoğan’s figures making it clear that “neutralized” included more than just killed. Later that same day, mainstream newspaper Milliyet stated both that 5,359 PKK terrorists (whereas Anadolu Agency said the figure also included members of ISIS and two radical leftist groups) had been killed and, in the very same article, that of a total 5,359 PKK terrorists neutralized, 3,583 had been killed and the rest had surrendered or been captured or injured. Incidentally, the General Staff released conflicting numbers the very same day: 4,432 terrorists had been neutralized and 377 security forces martyred in the same period that Erdoğan referenced; Turkish media duly reported “4,432 Terrorists Killed” [emphasis added]. The International Crisis Group, by the way, contends that number of PKK members confirmed dead since last July is closer to four hundred.

For their part, journalists feel compelled to include death totals in their reports even as experienced reporters express skepticism in private about their accuracy. As former Agence France Presse (AFP) reporter Nicholas Cheviron told me, including a death total is just part of the writing formula: “It was not something that was discussed with bureau chiefs or editors — and every journalist was following more or less the common doxa in Turkey offices.”

Journalists who have worked at AFP, BBC, and Reuters all told me they used state-provided numbers for total deaths. There appears to be a great deal of variation, however, in which government statements set the basis for international media references to the conflict’s human toll. Data that I have compiled suggest that journalists have adjusted their total estimates based less on fresh deaths or more reliable research than on Turkey’s appearance in news related to the US or Europe.

Above is a graph based on the number of news items in the Factiva international news database that include both “PKK” and one of the numbers on the right-hand side as keywords. As Turkish media tend to write large numbers in a “40 bin” (thousand) format rather than in all numerals as I searched, the graph is a better indicator of international trends than of domestic reporting; also, unlike international reports, Turkish-language reports do not usually mention a total number dead for the conflict, perhaps because they assume readers’ greater familiarity with the topic.

When a news item, which could be an article, TV or radio transcript, or photo caption, contains both “PKK” and “37,000” somewhere in its text, that is graphed as one “co-appearance.” The data is “noisy” in the sense that it also includes articles mentioning the PKK and numbers unrelated to casualties. Noise is not randomly distributed, as rounded tens of thousands get mentioned in different contexts more often than other numbers.

Nonetheless, the general trend is apparent: journalists mostly referenced either 30k or 37k in relation to the PKK from the late 1990s through 2007, then increased estimates to 40–45k by 2008, only for the higher end of those numbers to disappear between 2013 and 2015 as the media consolidated around 40k as the figure to cite.

Journalists almost never cite their sources for death tolls. Nonetheless, it is possible to see when journalists in large numbers started using a particular estimate, and then to look for politicians and influential organizations using that same estimate just before it became commonplace. That politician or organization is likely the original source of the estimate. Using this method, it appears that estimates that did become popular were ones that government officials made in the context of events outside Turkey that Europeans and Americans cared about.

Then-President Süleyman Demirel’s comment in December 1997 that nearly 37k had died was made following the EU’s highly publicized decision to deny Turkey equal treatment with other applicant countries to the union. It was also made after two Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq in which the state made questionable claims to have killed thousands of PKK fighters while incurring very few casualties. Despite the fact that official government sources often estimated total deaths to be around 30k in the early 2000s, the 37k figure continued to be widely used until the end of 2007.

The influential claim of 40k dead was made in October 2007 as Turkey prepared for another incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, which received far more international press than previous Turkish operations because the American occupation of Iraq was going poorly at the time and the Iraqi Kurds were seen as strong US allies. Rarely appearing in the news before then despite being cited to both Turkish and foreign audiences for years by politicians including the prime minister, 40k deaths suddenly became the most common reference for the international media starting in October 2007. Thus, at the end of a year in which both government and independent monitoring sources estimate approximately 500 people were killed, the journalistic world collectively declared 3–10k more people dead.

After İlker Başbuğ became Chief of the General Staff and announced that 44k total had been killed in the conflict, some media outlets including AFP, adopted the figure and soon thereafter rounded it up to 45,000. Nonetheless, since 2014 AFP has downshifted to usually citing “over 40,000” or “tens of thousands” of deaths, joining the pack. As the graph shows, updates to casualty numbers made in less internationally-newsworthy contexts, such as Başbuğ’s appointment as Chief of the General Staff or the 2013 publication of a parliamentary commission report, appear to be less influential and to have a shorter media shelf life.

The recitation of truthy number totals in the guise of technocratic precision is a well-established ritual of counterinsurgency in Turkey; it is a way for state officials to show that they are in control, if not of the country’s citizens or security then at least in the sense that they are watching and recording and tabulating all. As long as everything is being kept account of, chaos does not reign.

Both local and foreign journalists join in the ritual, though some journalists and NGO workers argue that focusing on more realistic short-term figures might actually be a more effective way of making an impression on audiences. Aliza Marcus, a journalist and author of the 2007 book Blood and Belief on the PKK, told me, “As a journalist, you need a number to make it say, ‘Okay people, pay attention.’ At 500 nobody pays attention. At 40 thousand they do, but if you average out 40 thousand over 32 years it may not sound like that much to a reader. I mean these numbers are just…a way to fix the conflict somehow, like ‘it’s killed a lot of people. Pay attention.’ But if you say 42 thousand, I don’t think any reader is going to react differently than 40 thousand. If you say it’s killed a thousand people in six months, as probably it has in the past six months, that [makes them] pay attention.”

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has kept track of deaths in the conflict since 2011, in good part out of belief that independently-tallied figures as a counterbalance to politicians’ exaggerated claims are important for Turkish and international public opinion. ICG research Berkay Mandıracı told me that the organization’s tally, from which it plans to create an online visual database soon, “is a way of shouting out loud that [violence] has escalated more than ever before [in the 2000s].” While figuring out who is a civilian and who a fighter is in some cases difficult, ICG totals show that since last July far more people, including 676 members of security forces, have already died than during the previous flare-up of violence in 2011–2012.

As Dr. Güneş Murat Tezcür, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida who has been keeping his own independent tally of conflict deaths, wrote in an email to me a few month ago, “The number of death[s] in the period from July 2015 to April 2016 is already higher than any other period since 1999 [when PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured] by a large margin. If this trend continues, the number of fatalities will be comparable [to] or even exceed the number of fatalities in the 1990s when the clashes peaked and were most intense.” Assuming, he might have added, that we even believe state-issued statistics about the 1990s.

Noah Arjomand –I am a PhD student in sociology at Columbia University, where I am writing a dissertation on media production in Turkey.