The End?

May 12, 2009

My good friend Martin has a post up at his blog The National Pundit discussing the recently-declared end of the war in Chechnya.  He seems a little dubious, to say the least, that the end has actually come.  Admittedly, any announcement by Moscow these days has to be taken with a grain of salt.  However, I’m inclined to believe that they mean what they say here.

Martin’s view is that the internal politics of Chechnya are too unstable to keep the various rebel groups passive for long, and that as soon as Moscow’s hand-picked strongman is no longer in charge the countryside will revert back to its rebellious ways.

He may be right about that, but I suspect he is missing a key factor.  Americans (and their British allies) have gotten some very tough lessons in the difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare in the last eight years.  Irregular warfare amidst an indifferent or hostile population is extremely difficult, both in a tactical/operational and strategic/political sense.  The experience would make one justifiably wary of future COIN campaigns and highly aware of the difficulties of subduing a hostile population.

However, these are lessons that the Russians never learned…..by choice.  The Russian approach to counterinsurgency in Chechnya is fundamentally different than anything the West would consider acceptable practice.  It bears more resemblance to the classic campaigns of Attila the Hun and Geghis Khan than the modern US Army.  Liberal use of artillery of major population centers, indiscriminate airstrikes on anything that moves, the razing of entire villages and a brutal suppression of civilians, under the theory that they are no more than would-be collaborators, all are standard operational practice for the Russian Army.

To use the old Maoist example, insurgents are the fish that swim in the sea of people.  Advanced COIN theory holds that the trick is to identify the fish and then attempt to separate them from the sea.  Get the fish, leave the water.  The Russians, on the other hand, simply choose to drain the ocean and watch the fish flop around until they die.  Witness what happened the last time Chechnya rose in revolt.  Grozny became a ghost-town, the victim of the only sustained heavy shelling of an urban area since 1945.  Those who fled to the villages found themselves trapped by Russian mechanized infantry who did not attempt to discriminate between civilian and insurgent.  Numerous towns were emptied and leveled, thousands of people were arrested, interrogated and eliminated, and the remaining rebels fled to the mountains and laid low.  Chechnya wasn’t “pacified.”  It was depopulated.

There are still Chechens in Afghanistan who came here as jihadists and never went home.  A few, including a couple of the guys on my staff, are former mujaheddin who no longer believe in the Islamic cause but are nevertheless unwilling to return to Chechnya.  The reason is simple.  There’s nothing left.  When Afghanistan is preferable to home, that doesn’t say much about home.

There will certainly be a flare-up of violence in Chechnya at some point.  The remaining rebels will come down from the mountains and the Russians will chase them back up.  But the war, in any meaningful sense of the term, is over.  It has been since Grozny burned in 2000.

On a side note, keep your eye on Martin Knapp.  He and I don’t always agree on policy (I make a point not to argue with him on IR theory), but he’s wicked smart and heading to join the DC policy establishment in the near future.  I expect great things.  Or maybe a nasty scandal.  Either way, it’ll be entertaining.