Friendless Chechens shield Taliban despite vast differences in beliefs
Date: March 15, 2002
Tiny country targeted first by Russians turned to West for support but found it only from Osama and the Russian Mafia
Take a map of Russia and hold a magnifying glass over the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Look north of Georgia, east of Dagestan, west of Ingushetia and you'll find the Republic of Chechnya. It's about the twice the size of Greater Toronto with a third the population. This pebble of a country, caught between the American hammer and the Russian anvil, is the latest battlefield in the War on Some Terrorism.
As a correspondent in Afghanistan, I started hearing about Chechens in November of 2001, as the Afghan cities fell to the Northern Alliance. Retreating Taliban commanders talked about their Arab and Chechen rear guards who never made it out. Slowly a pattern started to emerge. Far from being the panicked routes described by Pentagon spokesmen, these withdrawals were disciplined, good-order retreats. To preserve the core of the Taliban's army. the foreign volunteers, mostly Arabs and Chechens, held the line at any cost. It's estimated that a total of 8000 Chechens fought in Afghanistan and most of them died at their posts covering the retreats from Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities.
On a Feb. 28 visit to Georgia, where Special Forces and helicopters have been deployed, US State Department representative Lyn Pasco claimed the Chechen rebels are sheltering Al Qaeda fighters, which is almost certainly true. He also said that the Americans "are capable of telling Chechen fighters from terrorists", which is almost certainly false. I suspect that revenge ranks as an American motivation as well. If the Taliban still exists as a fighting force, capable of mounting operations like the recent counter-ambush in Gardez, they owe that to the Chechens. And as one of Murphy's Laws says, no good deed goes unpunished. At first glance Chechnya looks a lot like Afghanistan - isolated Muslim warrior tribes living in the mountains, often overrun but never conquered, with strong traditions of both honor and banditry. Chechen village names typically end in -Aul (fortress). If the Russians have attacked that village, the name will end in -Martan (battlefield). Their most revered historical figure is Imam Shamil, the guerilla fighter who led the tribes of Chechnya and Dagestan against the Russians from 1834 to 1859. He reinvented the archetype of the Muslim tribal soldier-scholar for the modern world. He's a folk hero in Afghanistan as well; a number of figures from both the Taliban and Northern Alliance are very consciously trying to follow his example.
One of the best pieces of advice I got before leaving was to learn the life and battles of Imam Shamil. "If you know his stories, if you can talk to the mujahideen about him, they'll trust you with anything." Two of those stories didn't strike the chords then that they do now. Shamil was famous for two dramatic escapes, one similar to Mullah Omar's motorcycle ride through the American checkpoint outside Kandahar, the other nearly identical to Osama Bin Laden's ghost-like disappearance from the mountain caves of Tora Bora.
The parallels are there but so are some important differences. As that front of the war heats up, watch for the Chechens to be characterized as Taliban-style Fundamentalists. They're hardly that. Most Chechens are Murids, followers of the Sufi tradition, about as far as you can get from the rules-and-punishment focus of the Taliban and their Wahabi allies and still be Muslim. This is a debate that's been playing out in the Muslim world for hundreds of years, between the political effort to establish God's law on this earth and the personal effort to discover what God is. The word the Sufis use where we say "Fundamentalists" is "Jurists", while the more orthodox Muslims call the Sufis "Mystics".
Despite that, there are strong ties. Arab-Afghans helped the Chechens win their 1994-96 war of independence, after which Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov embarked on an world tour in search of diplomatic recognition. Only Afghanistan was ready to cross Russia and recognize his government. After getting turned down in Pakistan, he was rumored to have said, "I presented myself in every capital in the world and the only friends I have are the Russian Mafia and Osama Bin Laden." Given what the Chechens suffered in the first Russian invasion (10 percent of their civilian population killed in "filtration camps", their capital city systematically carpet bombed to rubble) it's not hard to see why they take the friends they can get.
Between the second Russian invasion in the fall of 1999 and the start of the American War last fall, Chechnya occupied a special place on the Jihad caravan. Everybody talked about Palestine but nobody went there - the Palestinians didn't want foreign volunteers. In raw numbers, more fighters went to Kashmir, but Kashmir was a meat-grinder, where over-indoctrinated, under-trained Pakistani kids got thrown into the line against their Indian equivalents. Chechnya, though. Chechnya was the place to be.
The Mujahideen in Chechnya have a dual command structure. Russian-Afghan war veteran Ibn ul-Khattab leads the foreign volunteers. He's been described in books and articles as a Jordanian-born Chechen expatriate though he himself says he's from "an Arabian Gulf state". He's the charismatic one. With his shoulder-length hair and black Kalima ("There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.") beret, he looks like a Muslim Che Guevara. His innovation is the Zapatista-like "Jihad of Media", the string of Mujahideen websites that carry battlefield dispatches in over 20 languages as well as the army of video cameramen who accompany his forces on their operations.
Shamil Basayev leads the native Chechens. Like the late Ahmad Shah Masood, he's a cowboy, reckless and flamboyant. When the 1994-96 war bogged down into a stalemate, Basayev captured the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, held it against two KGB commando assaults and forced the Russians to negotiate a ceasefire. A year later, when the 10,000 strong Russian garrison in Grozny was selling its weapons for food, Basayev stormed the city with a much smaller force, some say 4,000 men, some say 1,500. Within a month the war was over.
Russia invaded again in 1999, after Basayev and Khattab led an incursion into neighboring Dagestan to support the local independence movement. The Chechens never did take the Dagestani border seriously. Communist era divide and conquer policies made a mess of all the borders in the Caucasus. Chechens and Dagestanis always got along well. Chechens and Ingush, not so well. Naturally, the Communists broke Dagestan off of Chechnya and joined most of Ingushetia on, giving a piece of Ingushetia to the North Ossetians. That way, nobody trusted their neighbors and everybody had to look to Moscow for protection.
If anything, Chechens are looking to be protected from Moscow these days. The fighting over the last few years has followed a pattern of guerilla hit-and-run attacks, mostly in the southern half of the country, with Russian reprisals against the villages that may or may not have harbored the guerillas. In February 2002, nine Chechen towns (Argun, Chechen-Aul, Gekhi, Gicalo, Novye Atagy, Prigorodnoe, Starye Atagy, Shali, and Tzotzan-Urt) were "mopped up". The Russian press was using the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to describe its Chechen genocide back in the 1860s: now they call it "mopping up".
The Chechen government has asked for observers from the UN Human Rights Commission, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. All these international bodies and others used to monitor what the Russians were doing in Chechnya. Now nobody wants to know.
There's not a lot coming out on what the Americans are actually doing from their Georgian base. The English-language Georgian press has nothing. Most of the Chechen Mujahideen sites, which were hosted in nearby Azerbaijan, were taken down by the Azeri government on March 14. Kavkaz www.kavkaz.org, one of the few still up, says that an unnamed Russian press source quoted an unnamed Russian Intelligence source to the effect that the Marneuli and Alekseyevka airbases are being resurfaced to accommodate American heavy bombers. Ichkeria www.ichkeria.org, a Chechen news site that claims neutrality between the Russians and Maskhadov's government, reports that the US Radio Free Europe has added Chechen language propaganda broadcasts.
In the pre-911 era, Third World independence movements were invisible if they were Muslim. Westerners knew about Tibet and East Timor, nobody noticed Mindanao, Chechnya and East Turkestan. The way that a generation ago the liberation movements of Cuba, Nicaragua and Vietnam approached the West first and were driven into the enemy camp, the same thing happened to the Muslim independence movements in the last decade. If we notice them now, it's as targets, not missed opportunities.