Friday, April 19, 2013

A Quick Primer on Chechnya

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 19 April 2013.

Chechnya is a region in the large isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas north of the Georgia and Armenia in the North Caucuses Mountains. It can be said to stand on the gate between east and west, with Russia to the north and Iran and Turkey only several hundred miles south. Most ethnic Chechens, by far the largest ethnic group, adhere to Sunni Islam. Ethnic Russians, mostly of transplanted Cossack origin, are predominantly Orthodox Christians. The region is also home to other smaller populations of eastern Caucuses peoples. Chechnya was part of the Ottoman Empire and then the Persian Empire until the early 19th century when it was ceded to Russia following their victory in the Russo-Persian War in 1813.

Chechnya has been host to conflict for centuries because of its strategic position between Russia and far eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire and the Middle or Near East. It sits atop the natural barrier of the Caucuses Mountains between two seas. Chechnya has been the site of many instances of brutal ethnic and religious oppression by the Ottomans, Persians, Russian Empire, the USSR, and the Russian Republic, as well as by regional separatist or independence leaders, in an effort to control or keep hold of the region. As a result, inhabitants are quite divided between political, ethnic, and religious allegiances. Roughly speaking, Chechnya has a history similar to regions such as Bosnia and Kosovo, which are subject to much the same tensions.

Chechnya has been fighting on-and-off for independence from Russia for over 200 years. It was briefly independent following the Russian Revolution in 1921. Following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1940, Chechnya again declared independence until Stalin re-established control in 1944, followed by a brutal purge and mass Siberian deportations. The years following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 were particularly violent as many Chechen groups fought again for independence from the Russian Republic, though the region has been under firm Russian control since 1999. However, this control has led some Chechen separatist groups to turn to terrorism.

Since 1999, Chechnya-linked groups have been involved in at least a dozen terror attacks, the majority of which have taken place in or been aimed at Russia. A Chechen group seized a grade school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, resulting in the deaths of 330 hostages, most of them children. In 2008, Chechen rebels took 130 hostages in a movie theatre in Moscow, all of whom died along with their captors following a botched rescue attempt by Russian security forces. In 2010, two female suicide bombers killed 39 in an attack at a train station near the Moscow headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s main intelligence agency.

There is evidence that some Chechen separatist groups may have links to Al-Qaeda. Many ethnic Chechen fighters fought alongside the mujahedeen, including Osama Bin Laden, in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Chechens also fought alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan against the U.S. and Northern Alliance fighters in 2001. The Taliban government was one of the few in the world to recognize Chechen independence. Russia has claimed it holds direct evidence of links between Chechen rebels and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many question this link and cite it as a ploy to ensure the west sees Chechen rebels as terrorists and the west elicits no resistance in return from Russia when it pursues its own terrorists elsewhere.

The U.S. government lists the Islamic Independent Peacekeeping Brigade as a source for funding for Islamist Chechan rebels and has ties to Al-Qaeda. America also lists the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment and Riyadus-Salikhin Brigade of Chechen Martyrs as terror groups.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Antagonizing America: Our Enemies Depend Upon us

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 28 March 2013.

There’s a theory that says when you’re the new kid in a rough neighborhood the first thing you should do is find the biggest, toughest kid on the block and punch him in the face. The sheer audacity of the act will make anyone else think twice about tangling with you, especially if you manage to go toe-to-toe for a few rounds before losing. Power perceived is power achieved–until the contrary is proven. America is the biggest, toughest kid on the block. There is value in antagonizing America.

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders … tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” –Hermann Goering

This is very much the idea that states such as Iran follow. The regime gains its power by focusing the minds of the population on a common enemy—America. The weekly anti-American demonstrations in Tehran, complete with flag burning, occur with such clockwork regularity that they have to come up with new gimmicks just to keep people interested.

It’s been said they pay people from the countryside to come into the city for a day to hold up signs and chant. Who wouldn't like to hop on a bus for a day in the city on the government’s dime? What university student would turn down a few bucks for burning a flag?

There’s nothing like an enemy to focus the mind of the people on external factors. The benefit is that while they’re worried about the enemy outside their borders they won’t give too much thought to life and problems within their own. Keeping the country safe from the enemy is a good justification for all kinds of internal security measures that would be questionable in other circumstances. A perpetual state of wariness exists on a pseudo-wartime footing.

Ironically, the Iranian regime and other dictatorships and theocracies like it throughout the world depend upon the United States. Their continued grip on power depends upon having America as an enemy to rattle their saber against. They derive their power from a manufactured need to bravely resist American imperialism that would destroy their culture and way of life. Every time commodity prices go up and put strain on peoples’ wallets, it can be blamed upon the enemy and their embargo, not on the regime and its actions or policies.

North Korea under the Kim dynasty has made an art of cycling between alternately opposing and folding to America and its allies. They develop nuclear weapons and elicit all manner of inducements from the West to get rid of them. The U.S. has delivered hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid, almost none of which made to ordinary Koreans.

After the Obama administration structured the aid to ensure it reached the people directly, the North called it off, going ahead with missile tests, beginning to rebuild its dismantled nuclear facilities and has recently threatened nuclear war against South Korea and the United States. There are signs the North is preparing for another underground nuclear test.

However, two or three years from now America and its P+5 allies will likely find themselves on the verge of another diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea. But once again, the North will snatch final victory from our mouths and the cycle will begin again. Iran follows a similar pattern in its own nuclear talks with America. Every time a breakthrough is reported through public or back channels and there seems to be progress, it runs off the rails almost like clockwork.

If Iran were really determined to build a nuclear arsenal, they could certainly have done so by now. Pakistan did so as a hedge against India and we couldn't or didn't do a lot to stop it. Some have been predicting a nuclear-armed Iran since the 1990’s. In reality, it isn't the nuclear weapons Iran is seeking; it is the confrontation and antimony with America that it wants and depends upon. Iran has had an open door to developing nuclear weapons for many years now and will likely sit on the fence for years to come.

None of this makes Iran or North Korea stuffed tigers. The Iranian regime has done actual damage to America going back to 1979 and the Cold War. Anywhere America becomes involved in the Middle East, Iran backs the other horse. It funds international terrorist groups, targeting Israel in particular. In Iraq, Iranian intelligence operatives were caught on the ground by U.S. forces and their footprint was easily seen in the training, weapons and explosives training funneled to the insurgency there. Iranian operations have likely killed thousands of Americans directly and indirectly.

The deep cult-of-personality that exists around Kim Jong-un and his father before him is grounds to wonder if North Korea will one day stop being a rational actor. Right now, Kim has decided that he is going to punch tough-kid America in the face to show the world and his people that he is made of sterner stuff. However, if he begins to believe his own propaganda and it turns to mania, he has his fingers on a lot of buttons.

Understanding this behavior is important. Unfortunately our response often seems to be to adopt the same model of these states in our own national political discourse on the topic. The war drums come out and red lines are drawn. Accusations are hurled back and forth and there’s a scramble to take up the patriotic mantle.

The Global War on Terror has been used to excuse many security measures in America wholly unacceptable in other circumstances. If we have learned anything in the last decade of conflict, it is that we should never sleepwalk towards war as inevitability without a full consideration of its necessity and aftermath and a wholehearted commitment to seeing it through to the end if we do.