Another Chechnya?

May 11, 2004

NEARLY 10 years ago, Russia decided to launch a pre-emptive war. An offending government was ousted, even as objectives became blurred - and even as the fighting dragged on. The war was declared to be over (several times), and was eventually portrayed as one against "terrorism." And there is, indeed, no denying that Islamic extremists of a violent and opportunistic bent have been attracted to the fight against an imperialistic, occupying power.

This was in Chechnya, of course, where on Sunday the Kremlin's hand-picked leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, was blown up by an artillery shell planted under a reviewing stand. The Kremlin is in a war it can neither win nor lose, and a decade on it shows no signs of letting up. Mr. Kadyrov's assassination will surely be followed by another of Russia's periodic crackdowns. The Russians say that Chechens only understand force. Yet every exercise in violence by the Russians attracts new recruits to the insurgent side.

Is this what Iraq will look like 10 years from now?

There are, to be sure, a thousand differences, large and small, between Chechnya and Iraq. Chechnya has a long (and unhappy) historical relationship with Russia, the Russian army is a blunt and often blundering instrument, its officers are susceptible to corruption, and the mountainous Chechen terrain is considerably more formidable than Iraq's. Abuse of prisoners in Chechnya, by both sides, has been grotesque.

Russia loses about 30 soldiers a week in Chechnya. In the 60 weeks of the Iraq war, fatalities among coalition forces are at just under half that rate.

Yet there is a common thread running through the Chechen and Iraqi experiences. Russia and the United States are the only major powers in the world that still pursue war as a way to solve essentially political problems. The launching of their respective attacks looked initially in both Moscow and Washington like political masterstrokes. But Russia quickly became bogged down in a counterinsurgency campaign, and now America is in danger of following. The main reason for the war becomes the fear that a great nation can't afford not to win such a war. Soldiers are killed and the only response anyone can think of is a reprisal guaranteed to create new enemies.

Americans should think hard about how to avoid another Chechnya. Cruelty, for a start, must be thoroughly and convincingly repudiated. A top-to-bottom house-cleaning in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal is in order, if only for the political impact that would have. After that, Washington can start focusing on the real challenge: how to win friends, rather than beat enemies.

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