Sunday, September 25, 2005

America's Inheritance in the Caucasus

This article, originally published by on September 24, 2005, points out the difficulties the US will face as it seeks to take over control of Russia's strategic southern sphere of influence.While intervention is never praiseworthy, the one thing that can be said about international involvement in the Caucasus is that it has at least been fairly cosmopolitan, marked by a wide variety of voices and nations, and less prone to polarizing truisms than in, say, the Balkans, where the unchallenged ascendancy of the "Milosevic is guilty for everything" line has basically eliminated the possibility of a more nuanced discourse and contributed so much to the domination of US/EU single-track ideological rule.Indeed, as the Christian Science Monitor recently put it, "the region is a patchwork quilt of warring ethnic groups and rival religions that makes Europe's other tangled knot, the Balkans, look tame by comparison."At least with the Caucasus, one encounters more reasoned analyses and a wider variety of organizations, governments and individuals championing a much more complex bundle of interests. Cut-and-dried conclusions appear less frequently, and when war and ethnic cleansing is brought up, there is guilt enough to go around on all sides. The Western mass media, despite its unfortunate adulation of Georgia's "Rose Revolution," has been fairly even-handed, though perhaps unintentionally. This is because a large part of their "objectivity" owes to the region's great distance, mentally and geographically, from the average Western reader; whereas the Balkans was more or less in Europe's backyard, the Caucasus is on the edge of the property – or maybe even on the other side.Turbulence in the NorthMeanwhile, on the other side of the other side, in the North Caucasus, tensions have been rising as a murky web of secessionists, Islamists and common criminals provoke an already tense situation with renewed violence. The goal, boasts a Chechen commander, is to provoke a region-wide war that would see the definitive exodus of Russia from the Caucasus. In an interview with a Polish newspaper posted on the pro-Chechen site Kavkazcenter Chechen "President" Abdul Sadulayev stated:"We cannot doubt our victory. It is enough to look at the situation which is taking shape in Chechnya for that. The Russians started this war, hoping to make a 'local conflict' out of it. They have been pursuing their 'wise policy' here, and as a result Dagestan has turned into a military front, as has the whole of the Caucasus. A Caucasus front has been organized including all the areas (sectors) of Ingushetia, Kabarda-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygeya, Stavropol Territory, Krasnodar Territory and North Ossetia."Unrestricted Attacks, Expanding FrontsWhile Sadulayev's familiar if disingenuous logic of blaming everything on Russia should be taken with a grain of salt, it is true that the violence has been spreading.Last week, four explosions hit Ingushetia, targeting a cargo train, court building, bus stop and military column. While damage was small, the bombings rattled an already tense republic whose Muslim population has been aiding the fighters of neighboring Chechnya. And, since the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan a year ago, tensions have dramatically increased between the Ingush Muslims and Orthodox Christians of North Ossetia to the west, where Beslan is located. The two republics fought a brief war shortly after the break-up of the USSR and it cannot be ruled out that they will not clash again. According to Russian police, the four bombings were the Muslim terrorists' choice of "revenge" against the government, which had "recently conducted successful operations against several groups of local militants."Meanwhile, a police officer in the truly multiethnic (over 30 indigenous groups) Dagestan was shot, and several Russian troops have been killed in fighting as well, reports the BBC. Another recent article, reporting an attack on a Russian oil pipeline in North Ossetia, claims that "Moscow controls this area in name only. In reality the news has admitted that a lot of the violence is not even being reported. Police and troops die daily across the North Caucasus to the Caspian... The area is completely up for grabs."Finally, according to the CSM, Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, who "narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of a suicide car-bomber and a sniper," is being targeted by Islamic militants loyal to Basayev, who last year briefly captured the capital, Nazran, "killing almost 100 police officers and government officials" in the process. While Zyazikov put out a brave face for the newspaper, claiming that things are basically peaceful, locals aren't so sure: "'everyone here is always talking about getting ready for war with the Ingush, to get even with them,' says Madina Pedatova, a teacher at Beslan's spanking new School No. 8. 'I'm terrified of it, but I'm sure it's coming.'"Internal Fractures as Well"Our forecasts say that Tatarstan and Bashkortostan will rise up next, because Russia's policy there is aimed at suppressing Muslims, and this cannot fail to end in an explosion of emotions among the masses," adds Sadulayev in the Polish interview. "The role of Islam in the Caucasus is huge. The Muslim population is in the majority here. Since we Chechens are surrounded by friendly Muslim people, there are friendly traditions and kinship links between us."However, not all involved see the conflict in such terms. As the situation deteriorates further, infighting between the sides continues. According to Interfax on Sept. 17, Chechen leader Akhmad Avdorkhanov, "a one-time aide to the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and the commander of the so-called Eastern Front of Ichkeria" was killed by militants loyal to rival group leader Shamil Basayev.Chechnya's First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov described the slain Avdorkhanov as a moderate; he was allegedly "among the most influential field commanders, was notable for his particular courage, was categorically against Wahhabis (radical Muslims), and did not recognize Basayev." Indeed, Sadulayev praises Basayev as "a disciplined amir and mojahed."However, according to the deputy premier, while Basayev viewed Avdorkhanov as a threat to be dealt with, "the immediate motive behind the murder is the 1.5 million US dollars recently received by the Chechen separatists. 'The incident that led to Avdorkhanov's death was prompted by Basayev's attempts to lay his hands on this money... the leaders of illegal armed groups, primarily Basayev, have no ideals, but only the desire to make money, kill, and please their foreign patrons, despite numerous victims among the Chechen people,' the official noted."Neocons in the MidstWho are these "foreign patrons" of the Chechen cause? Without doubt, wealthy Islamic fundamentalists from the Arabic world rank high on the list. However, moral support for the Chechen militants can be found closer to home. Less motivated by lucre than by a bizarre obsession with reviving the Cold War, Washington hawks have taken a prominent position on the Chechnya issue, it seems, solely with the aim of weakening Russia. Unfortunately, a powerful and influential bloc in Washington – some neoconservative, all predatorial – would like to shape events in a way that could have disastrous long-term effects for America, guided by a desire to cling to archaic antagonisms and to seek vindictive "victories" through extremely short-sighted tactics.A prime nesting ground for these hawks has been the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC) Writing a year ago, in the wake of the Beslan tragedy, John Laughland stated:"The list of the self-styled 'distinguished Americans' who are its members is a roll call of the most prominent neoconservatives who so enthusiastically support the 'war on terror.'"They include Richard Perle, the notorious Pentagon adviser; Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame; Kenneth Adelman, the former US ambassador to the UN who egged on the invasion of Iraq by predicting it would be 'a cakewalk'; Midge Decter, biographer of Donald Rumsfeld and a director of the rightwing Heritage Foundation; Frank Gaffney of the militarist Centre for Security Policy; Bruce Jackson, former US military intelligence officer and one-time vice-president of Lockheed Martin, now president of the US Committee on Nato; Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, a former admirer of Italian fascism and now a leading proponent of regime change in Iran; and R James Woolsey, the former CIA director who is one of the leading cheerleaders behind George Bush's plans to re-model the Muslim world along pro-US lines."Unfortunately, the braintrust that brought us the twin "liberations" of Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have similar plans for Russia. Their plans proceed along two fronts: one, replace Vladimir Putin with a malleable "pro-Western reformist" such as the celebrated businessman and former Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and two, humiliate the country through its dissolution, starting with its Caucasus possessions.Richard Perle's championing of the Khodorkovsky cause is well-known; less clear is the degree and type of support his bunch provides the Chechens. Does it end with providing asylum to Chechen terrorists in America and Britain, or are the neocons trying to "give Russia their Vietnam" (as cold-warrior extraordinaire and current ACPC Chairman Zbigniew Brzezinski once put it) for the second time, and again through more direct support?There's little definite proof, but the one thing that is sure is that the most fervent supporters of the "war on terror" exhibit a predictable schizophrenia in supporting "good" Muslims, as was the case in the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions: "In Chechnya, the conflict has created a cultural and demographic crisis rivaling the tragedies witnessed in Bosnia and Kosovo." Of course, there's no mention of the very real terrorist attacks carried out by foreign-backed Chechen and other Islamic fighters, who would like to replace Russian rule with "a single Islamist state stretching from the Caspian to the Black Sea."Indeed, in an unpredictable era of shadowy enemies and "non-state actors," Brzezinski's celebrated 1998 quote now seems even more foolish than ever:"What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"Preconceptions, Simplifications and Hard RealitiesYet apparently the Cold War is not yet over. If Brzezinski and his crew have their way, America's inheritance in Russia's final lost provinces of the Caucasus will be just as auspicious as it has been in Afghanistan.The Cold Warriors' presuppositions seem to rest on the following false assumptions: that Russia is the enemy, and harming it in any way is thus in America's interests; that Iran is evil and uncontrollable; that the Caucasus can be divided into a north and south, meaning that one can be stabilized to the detriment or enhancement of the other; and, finally, that America has the resources and capabilities to control everything in the world.However, the opposite is clear in every case. Russia is not the enemy; it has no extra-territorial ambitions, and its delapidated military poses no threat. On the other hand, NATO's expanding remit, American bases in Central Asia, and the increasingly anti-Russian attitudes of US and EU client states in Eastern Europe have pretty much finished off the Russian bear. Much to the ire of Perle and Co., the only trump cards Putin's vast nation still enjoys are nuclear weapons and a huge supply of oil. However, the Russian leader is not averse to involving foreign oil companies, as his recent meetings in America indicated. And considering that the US has declared the possibility of Russian nukes falling into the wrong hands, there seem to be few reasonable arguments for accelerating the country's decline. Expediting dissolution in the North Caucasus only increases the risk of Russian nuclear materials and other weapons coming into the possession of terrorists.Indeed, while the neocons might be gloating when they see Russia fall apart, it is hardly likely that successor "republics" such as Chechnya aspires to be would be more Jeffersonian than Islamic. No one in Chechnya is going to thank a Washington thinktank for championing their cause when it comes time to establishing the mores of social life and the rules of the political that will govern them. But given the narcissistic delusions of the war/democracy party, which have reached glorious fulfillment in Iraq, they are no doubt expecting to be embraced as benevolent role models by the Chechens, the Ingush and whoever else comes next.As for Iran, the destabilization of this charter member of the "Axis of Evil," whether under democratic or security pretenses via Iraq, would only harm the fragile balance of power in the Caucasus. This perceptive article discusses in detail why Iran "has acted as a moderate and balanced player in the region by placing the geopolitical, economic, and security aspects of its national interests over ideological or religious motives." Yet disinterested in seeing the complete picture of rival religious and ethnic interests in the Caucasus, an arrogant American leadership has labored under the pretense that its multi-colored revolutions and its oil pipelines can be the only guarantors of regional "stability."They seldom consider the complex web of religious and ethnic relations that go into forming the policies of neighboring states which seem "outside" the equation, such as Iran. They thus fail to consider how the destabilization of such states would have wider ramifications for areas where they had believed everything was under control.In the present context, this area under control would be what conventional wisdom deceptively calls the "South" Caucasus. Despite their very real internal antagonisms and frozen conflicts, the countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are relatively quiet now, more or less pacified by Western largess and (except for the last) a desire to break out of the Russian sphere of influence. Contrasting this situation of relative tranquility to Russia's ongoing woes on the northern side of the mountains, the Bush administration quietly gloats over the Pax Caucasia it has brought with the elevation of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, and the recent completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.However, such a north-south distinction cannot realistically be supported. Throughout history, the Caucasus has been characterized by its singularity, its wealth of disparate ethnic and religious groups, and by its geography – simultaneously impassable and yet everywhere vulnerable to intrusion. For the most part, the region's formidable mountains make a joke out of all attempts to impose state controls. Clan and ethnic groups straddle national and sub-national boundaries, adding to this tendency to make the latter irrelevent. Terrorist groups "safely" ensconced in Chechnya can and do spill over into Georgia. Ossetians view their national territory – memorably described by the Economist as "a smuggling racket with a patch of land attached" – as unfairly divided between Russia and Georgia, and support the former in its own interventionist policies against Georgia. Meanwhile, foreign Islamic groups trained in Chechnya and Dagestan have penetrated "pro-Western" Azerbaijan, and are starting to agitate for the overthrowing of the state. And the list goes on.That said, America's pride and joy for "regional stability" – the BTC pipeline – has a better chance of emerging as a gigantic target for various groups of malcontents. In an appropriately titled article called "The Pipeline from Hell,"'s Justin Raimondo draws a likely conclusion of this "strategic investment":"If American oil companies are due to make mega-profits in the Caspian region, then the U.S. military will be doing guard duty along every inch of the BTC pipeline, ensuring 'stability' in a land of nomadic herders and exporting 'democracy' to a region formerly ruled by pashas, sultans, and various and sundry dictators."Yet while it is true that this new asset will increase the US military commitment to the region, it is also probable that the job of providing "security" for the pipeline will also be taken over by various local lords and chieftans along the route – some of whom, like the recently reactivated Kurdish rebels in Turkey, might ask a price for their cooperation that is exceedingly high. Unfortunately, the "or else" clause is likely to become a part of the vocabulary of all such local security providers. America and its Western co-investors are likely to be in for an expensive and all-consuming headache, rather than a neat global solution to their energy and security needs.And this is just considering the largely subjugated "South" Caucasus. How much more can these headaches be compounded, if you consider a post-Russian "North" Caucasus, characterized by tiny and volatile statelets run by dueling local chieftans, most of them under some variant of Islamic law? Are the democracy proliferators of the ACPC prepared for what they are about to get in a post-Russia Caucasus? While they hate Russia's perceived interventionism in the Caucasus, they fail to consider what the ensuing power vacuum will look like, deprived of all counterbalancing forces.A Sobering ConclusionIn the end, there is a comparison to be made here with another neocon-inspired war. Back in March 2003, when America's invasion of Iraq began, syndicated columnist Charley Reese drolly congratulated the American people on their imminent "adoption" of 22 million Iraqi citizens. We've now seen just how much the Iraqi inheritance has benefited America. The worst thing about the situation in the Caucasus is that no one, not even the enthusiastic expansionist leadership, is aware of what they will be inheriting there.Yet as Gabriel Kolko predicted in Another Century of War?, America's resources are not unlimited. Heavily in debt, with foreign nations funding 43 percent of its wars, and unable to react to simple natural disasters at home, it is clear that the imperial ambitions of the neocons are simply neither sustainable nor realistic. The desire to replace Russia as imperial power in the Caucasus is a case in point.In short, there are no indications that America has the resources, will or intelligence to "manage" this convoluted region any better than the Russians have. In fact, they will likely do much worse – Russia, at least, had the benefits of geographical proximity, thousands of years of intermingled cultures, a long-term institutional presence, etc. America has none of these. Its pretensions to rulership are largely based on the airy platitudes of armchair strategists in Washington, who have little or no appreciation for the local realities on the ground, counting on abstract values to see them through.In the end, the American supporters of expanding the empire to the Caucasus should be careful what they wish for. They have yet to show an interest in reading Russia's will, though the document is right in front of their eyes.

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