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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen vs. Afghan Campaign

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For both Russia and the United States, war followed terrorist attacks that claimed civilian lives and exacted heavy social costs. The attacks upon New York and Washington occurred exactly two years and one week after the first of four Russian apartment buildings exploded. The United States began its anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan exactly two years and one week after Russia began its current military campaign in Chechnya.

In their respective campaigns, both Russia and the United States found themselves fighting against forces composed of local militants and foreign fighters. These forces were joined on behalf of similar forms of Islamist extremism and were supported by the same individuals and organizations based in the Persian Gulf. The Taliban and Chechen militants have supported one another, and Osama bin Laden has supported both.

But that's where the similarities stop. In a little more than two years, Russia has sunk steadily deeper into a Chechen quagmire. In a little more than two months, the United States has achieved most of its goals in Afghanistan. There is much that Moscow might learn from the U.S. campaign.

The differences began immediately after the terrorist attacks occurred in each country. Russians quickly blamed Chechens for the apartment blasts, just as Americans accused al-Qaida. But Russian officials vilified Chechens as a people and the Russian media was quick to follow. This vilification added to long-standing anti-Caucasian prejudices in Russia that target people of dark complexion from the south, including dozens of other ethnicities as well as Chechens, for regular harassment and periodic assault. These prejudices undermine Russia's presence in the Caucasus morally and politically. How can Russia justify its retention of these people within its federation when it chronically treats them as second-class citizens? Every day in Russia new rebels rise up against the injustice of these prejudices.

By contrast, U.S. leaders and the U.S. media joined forces to combat the vilification of Arabs. They opposed prejudicial treatment of Arab-Americans, prosecuted hate crimes, and declared that U.S. actions would not be anti-Islamic.

After the attacks, the United States acted with careful deliberation. Initial efforts were dedicated to diplomatic finesse that addressed the fears of foreign leaders and consolidated international support. The following weeks saw similar public relations efforts within Afghanistan. Millions of leaflets were dropped assuring Afghans of U.S. protection and offering them a clear choice if they abandoned their militant leaders. When the U.S. attack finally came, it was targeted to avoid civilian casualties and was accompanied by food drops.

Moscow did none of this. The failure of Russian policies in Chechnya began before its troops re-entered the republic when it failed to explain the reasons for its military campaign to the international community and the people of Chechnya.

In fact, Russia had a case. After Russia withdrew from Chechnya in 1996, Chechnya disintegrated into lawlessness. Thousands of people from the region were held hostage in Chechnya. Criminal raids across the Chechen border were daily events that terrorized the surrounding populations, and militant groups from Chechnya thrice invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan. My survey research suggests that most of the Muslim people of Dagestan view Chechnya as a serious threat, support the Russian campaign in Chechnya and seek closer relations with Russia. Yet before Russian troops re-entered Chechnya, little effort was made to explain any of this in international forums.

Nor did Russian leaders appeal to the people of Chechnya. Here again, Russia had a case. Many Chechens suffered from the chaos in their country and were fed up with the warlords and extremists who ran it. Especially in the early stages of the war, Russia had the support of some of these people, and it might have had the support of more had it made an effort to assure their protection.

Instead, Russian attacks have been characteristically brutal and indiscriminate. Efforts to identify militants in "pacified" areas of Chechnya have resulted in the regular abuse of civilians. These tactics have inspired Chechen resistance and undermined any popular support that Moscow might otherwise have cultivated. So long as these tactics continue there can be no hope for peace in Chechnya.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, the militants were found to be without popular support and folded surprisingly quickly. The U.S. presence has supported the restoration of human rights, and efforts to seek out militants in pacified areas have been relatively unobtrusive.

Of course, comparison invites caveats. First, in southern Russia there are ancient animosities that the United States is spared in Afghanistan. Second, in Chechnya, Islamist extremists cannot be separated as easily from local nationalists as they were in Afghanistan. Third, the Russian military is a horribly blunt instrument for such delicate social surgery. Russians lack precision weapons and disciplined troops, while Chechen militants hide among civilians. Finally, the situation in Afghanistan is likely to deteriorate in the future, as power devolves to feuding warlords.

Still, it remains a fact that Russia has rarely deviated from policies that are patently counterproductive. For more than two years, the West has bashed Russia's policies in Chechnya without producing constructive change. Now we have demonstrated a different approach. Perhaps we will do more to help the people of Chechnya if we appeal to Russians in terms of their own interests.

Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University who conducts fieldwork in the Caucasus. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.