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Between the Lines

May 10, 2004

Putin and Chechnya, Bush and Iraq

The civilian architects of our campaign in Iraq which even some of our top military brass are beginning to fear we're losing strategically could learn a few things from the experience of the Russians in Chechyna.

The Russian position there, which already was bad, took a sharp turn for the worse yesterday when its puppet president, Akhmad Kardyrov, was killed by terrorist bomb on live TV.

Chechnya is a small, mountainous, Muslim enclave of a little less than 1 million people. (Iraq, by contrast, has about 24 million.)

Despite its small size, Chechnya has been a big problem for the Russian leadership for more than a decade (though its roots extend back to czarist times). The Muslim insurrection there is similar in some key ways to the one the U.S. faces in Iraq.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya declared its independence, which Russia refused to recognize. In 1994, Russia's former president, Boris Yeltsin sent in the Russian army to prosecute a bloody conflict against what at the time was largely a nationalist uprising. It didn't work. Despite virtually destroying the capital at Grozny, and killing 70,000 or so civilians, the Russians withdrew in defeat in 1996.

"The aftermath of the 1994-96 war further eroded the Chechen government's control over the militias, while local warlords gained strength," one historical background piece notes. "The destroyed Chechen economy left armed but unemployed Chechens. Brutalized by war and atrocities committed by Russian troops, they were easily radicalized."

They began to take out their frustrations through bombings of Russian civilian targets, including some in Moscow. By mid-1999, Russia was accusing the Chechens of harboring international terrorists (as distinct from indigenous nationalists) and a former KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin was elected president largely because he promised to get tough with Chechnya.

He did. Russian troops invaded again. There were further depredations against civilians and lesser human rights abuses that continue to this day under the Russians' puppet regime. This hasn't worked either, however, as Sunday's assassination demonstrated. To the contrary, the draconian Russian occupations of Chechnya have turned it into a playground for the very international terrorists Putin promised to get rid of.

As, Andrei Piontkovsky, the head of a Russian think tank put it in this article six weeks ago,

"In the 20th century, terrorism was used mainly as an instrument to achieve political goals, and there are still recent or current conflicts -- in Northern Ireland, the Basque country, Sri Lanka, Indonesia -- where separatists use violence against a metropolitan power to try to win greater autonomy or independence.

"But the 21st century has given us a phenomenon that might be termed 'metaphysical terrorism.' Practiced chiefly by Islamic radicals associated with al Qaeda, it is not about achieving political goals, such as independence. It simply rejects Western civilization in principle and seeks its destruction.

"This distinction is important for Russia, because in the 1990s we had much experience with Chechen separatists' use of violence as a political instrument. The challenge we face today is of a different order: It is metaphysical terrorism, and in this case it is a monster largely of our own creation.

"The Russian leadership constantly reiterates that it is not fighting Chechen separatists but international terrorists, and this has finally become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to the methods with which we have waged this war, we have turned practically the whole population of Chechnya into enemies and created for metaphysical terrorism a huge reservoir of living bombs -- desperate people ready to carry out the plans of the terrorists."

Does any of this sound familiar? As with the Russians, our own policies are making a bad situation worse. We haven't gotten to the point the Russians have in Chechnya yet, but we're certainly headed that direction.

From today's news reports, we learn that, "Standing next to Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, Putin said the Chechen president had died a hero's death."

Last week, largely obscured by the outcry over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a tape purported to be from Osama bin Laden promised would-be assassins 10,000 grams of gold (that's about 22 pounds, worth something over $100,000) for the assassination of our Iraq administrator, Paul Bremer, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, or Annan's envoy to Iraq, Ladkhar Brahimi.

That's chickenfeed compared with the $25 million price we have on Bin Laden's head. But, then, his adherents already seem highly motivated. I have to wonder how secure Bremer et al are feeling today.

Posted by tbrown at 02:11 PM




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