The Lessons of Chechnya In Iraq: A Realist Approach to Civilian Warfare

 In December of 1994, Russia began its first military campaign against the Chechen separatists with a ground assault on the city of Grozny.

 In December of 1994, Russia began its first military campaign against the Chechen separatists with a ground assault on the city of Grozny. A botched pincer maneuver failed to capture the rebels, who killed more than 2,000 Russian soldiers before escaping to the hills. In the next few days, the frustrated Russian military responded by unleashing a torrential bombing campaign that, at its peak, struck the city with 4,000 shells per hour.

When the bombing ended, half of Grozny - once an urban center of 300,000 people - was reduced to ruins, and thousands of civilians were killed. But that was only the beginning. For the international community, the conflict quickly became an epitome of human rights violations. Political leaders and human rights groups around the world roundly condemned the Russian army's behavior and pressured the country's leadership to change its military tactics.

A decade later, it has become clear that this approach has failed miserably. The Russian military, never a champion of progressive warfare, has continued to act as if there was no difference between militants and civilians, engaging in systematic torture, kidnapping, rape and looting. It has pursued a policy of civilian terror through the infamous zachistki, or "security sweeps," that leave dead and missing civilians in their wake. And with Russia now an important ally in the war in terror, it's obvious that any diplomatic pressure from the United States to curb human rights abuse will continue to be cautious and meek.

Clearly, if indiscriminate warfare against civilians is to be stopped, a new approach is needed. The Russian generals, fixed in the inertia of Cold War thinking, are unlikely to concern themselves with such fuzzy, decadent Western notions as human rights. They are far more likely to be persuaded to curb civilian atrocities if they realize that dictates of hard-headed military strategy would argue against such tactics. For by refusing to distinguish between fighters and civilians, the Russian army fused together the interests of previously disparate groups - the Islamic militants, who want to wage a holy war against the Russians, and the general Chechen population, who want to be left alone. In the process, the army created a far more dangerous foe.

In the system of arbitrary terror imposed by the Russian troops, the civilians suddenly found themselves aligned with the rebels. Anatol Lieven has written that, because of the Russian human rights abuses, "Chechen militants have expanded their ability to recruit volunteers even from among those who, prior to the Russian intervention, hated the militants and did not share in their goals." The Russian military's conflation of the militant and the civilian radicalized the latter and popularized the former.

It is not surprising then that one consequence of Russian conduct in Chechnya has been the religious radicalization of the population. Until recently, radical Islam was not common among the Chechens, who practiced a mild form of Sufism rooted in cultural and familial traditions. The growing popularity of militant Islam was a consequence of the war, not its cause. As Djokhar Dudayev, the first Chechen president, said in 1995: "It was Russia that forced us onto the path of Islam."

Throughout the first and the second military campaigns, as Russian forces continued to antagonize the general population, the Chechen fighters moved from the militant fringe to become symbols of national liberation. Unfortunately for Russia, by acquiring this populist image, the Chechen mujahadeen have secured the support of the Chechen public. If the rebels today command a more profound emotional legitimacy among the Chechen people, they have only the Russian army to thank.  

By the fall of 2002, Russian public opinion polls indicated waning support for the war.  But the dramatic terrorist hijacking of a Moscow theater re-galvanized public opinion against the Chechens - among both the elites and the masses - and assured continued hostilities. In 1999, it was the militants' raids into neighboring Dagestan and the Moscow apartment bombings that catalyzed public outrage against Chechnya. Moderate Chechen civilians no doubt realize that terrorist acts provoke more hostility, not appeasement, but the conduct of the Russian military drives them toward supporting the militants. To solve this problem, Russia should pursue a policy of progressive warfare which, by separating the people from the militants, can help re-channel the discontent of the Chechen masses away from Russia and toward the extremists among them.   

The failure to curb civilian violence is not unique to Russia. Every time an Israeli helicopter gunship kills a dozen bystanders to eliminate a Hamas leader, it perpetuates a cycle of anger and violence. But by carefully distinguishing militants from civilians (through targeted assassinations, perhaps), Israel could re-channel Palestinian public discontent towards the radical factions within, which can only promote Israel's own security interests. Or, as Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current Finance Minister and former Prime Minister, said in September of this year, "The test of whether we're moving toward peace will come not when we fight the terrorists, but when the Palestinians fight the terrorists among them."