#6 - JRL 7245
Financial Times (UK)
June 30, 2003
America must avoid the Chechnya trap
By Mark Brzezinski
The writer is a Washington lawyer. He served as director for Russian and Eurasian affairs in the administration of Bill Clinton
Reports of foreign fighters joining the resistance against US forces in Iraq are an alarming development as America and Britain try to win the peace and establish security. Direct engagements between American troops and armed Syrians, Saudis, Yemenis, Algerians, Lebanese and even Chechens are increasingly reported. American soldiers are being subjected to sniper attacks and ambushes almost daily, with tragic consequences.
The involvement of non-Iraqis in particular suggests a parallel between the US challenge today in Iraq and Russia's experiences in Chechnya since the outbreak of the second Chechen war in 1999.
Before 1999, the Chechen rebellion was primarily a localised conflict in the North Caucasus. While some aid and fighters were funnelled from abroad to Chechnya in the first Chechen war in 1996, the leadership and soldiers of the rebellion were mainly home grown. Indeed, the leader of the first Chechen rebellion, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, was Chechen and had been an officer in the Soviet army.
After the second Chechen rebellion broke out in 1999, Russia pursued a scorched-earth programme to crush the rebels. While Russia promised to rebuild Chechnya and improve social services, the ruthlessness of Russian actions was widely noted. The levelling of the Chechen capital of Grozny in early 2000, the gross violations of human rights by Russian soldiers, and President Vladimir Putin's comment that he "would rub the Chechens out in the toilet", were widely covered in the Muslim world.
Two developments followed. First, more foreign fighters, so-called "mujahideen", came to Chechnya to support the Chechen cause and fight Russian oppression. These fighters came from throughout the Muslim world and even elsewhere - there were reports of Lithuanians and other central Europeans being captured among Chechen rebels. One rebel leader, Khattab, was not Chechen, but Saudi Arabian.
Second, the practice of Islam became radicalised in Chechnya. Before 1999, women did not wear burkhas frequently, and suicide attacks, with videotapes of rebels reciting the Koran, were unknown. In many parts of the Muslim world, Chechnya became the cause celebre.
Foreign fighters in Chechnya are less motivated toward gaining Chechen national independence and more inspired toward expanding fundamentalist Islam.
There are many differences between the Chechen conflict and the US occupation of Iraq. For a start, coalition forces in Iraq have gone out of their way to minimise the loss of civilian life. In Iraq, there have not been the kind of reports of mass looting, rape and other human rights violations perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Chechnya and documented by Human Rights Watch. Nor has there been a systematic attempt to intimidate the civilian population in Iraq, as Russian forces have managed to do through their zachistki, or cleansing operations. In addition, the US and coalition forces are doing their best to bring water, food, health care and shelter to a civilian population in need.
But there are some similarities in the role of foreign fighters. The goals of foreign fighters in Iraq are similar to those of their counterparts in Chechnya: to raise the casualty toll of the "occupying forces" and create pressure on them to withdraw. And as in Chechnya, efforts to contain the influx of foreign fighters by sealing the border are inadequate. Russia put tremendous pressure on Georgia to control its northern border, but despite Georgian efforts (with US support), foreign fighters and equipment continue to cross into Chechnya: Pankisi Gorge in eastern Georgia remains a corridor of support for the Chechen cause.
There are limits to how much the borders of Iraq with Syria and Iran can be controlled. US soldiers have reduced infiltration across the Iran-Iraq border as well as Iraq's border with Syria. But there is a broad swathe of Iraq, west of the capital and north between Baghdad and Tikrit, where the US presence is limited, and foreign fighters have been able to get a foothold along with Saddam Hussein's loyalists.
Just as in Chechnya, foreign fighters in Iraq succeed where they have the support and assistance of the local population. This is where the US can diverge from Russia's experience. Russia promised that military action would be followed by investments in infrastructure and social services. But the quality of life in Chechnya has gone from bad to worse. As a result, the only role associated by the Chechen population with Russian forces in the North Caucasus is that of oppressor, not liberator or benefactor.
The US, by contrast, still has a chance to convince Iraqis that the coalition administration will be good for them and for their nation. But if the US cannot meet the population's basic needs - water, food, shelter, health care - and if it is not sensitive to the population's national and cultural dignity, we will have lost the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The US has a small window of opportunity to avoid becoming bogged down in Iraq. But it will take butter as well as guns.