Posted by: Christian | May 19, 2011

Chechens, Cubans and other Mythical Beasts of Afghanistan

About four years ago I wrote about the myth of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan. Up to that point there had not been a verified Chechen in the country post 9-11. And since I wrote that article no Chechen has turned up. Many others have (e.g., Arabs, Turks, assorted Pakistanis, converts, etc…), but no Chechens. Chechens have been reported en masse by the media – much to the annoyance of Registan and the angry folks at Kavkaz Center. But still, no Chechens – no online martyr tribute, no name, no documents, no Chechen prisoners, nothing. I’ll be shocked if the “Chechens” killed a couple of days ago in Pakistan actually turn out to be ethnic Chechens. I’ll keep an open mind, but past reporting has all come and gone with no confirmation.

Let’s go to the only person outside of Russia who an expert on both Afghanistan and Chechnya:

Another group that is routinely listed in the roll call of those foreign fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan are the Chechens. For those such as myself who have long studied the ancient Chechen highlanders and their on going secessionist war in the distant Caucasus this is perhaps the most bizarre accusation. This is because unlike the Arabs, Turks and Uzbeks, the Sufi Chechens are a micro nation of just over a million people whose Rhode Island-sized homeland is occupied by Russian Federation troops. The estimated 200-300 die hard Chechen insurgents still fighting Russian “infidel occupiers” in the forested mountains of the south have their hands full waging a guerilla war against Russian Federal forces and their local Chechen proxy allies. The rebels have in fact relied upon foreign Turkish and Arab jihadis to come to their aid. There is little rationale for them to deploy desperately needed fighters across Eurasia to help the Pashtun Taliban tribesmen wage war against the US-led Coalition and Pakistani troops. To date no Chechen has ever been captured, interviewed, nor has there been any evidence of one being killed in this region. Significantly, no Chechens were ever captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay by Coalition troops. In addition, in all my years of tracking on line martyrdom epitaphs I have never seen one of a Chechen in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

While US troops I served alongside while working for NATO in Afghanistan in 2009 had stories of fighting elusive Chechens no one actually knew what one looked like. “Evidence” of Chechens being in an area was usually provided in the form of stories of skilled enemy sniping or more commonly “radio intercepts.” But the commonsensical question is how many US troops (or more improbably Afghans) speak Nokchi, the complex ancient language of the Chechen highlanders, to corroborate such claims?

That’s from a much longer 2010 article by Brian Glyn Williams, which you can read here (PDF). If you have access to academic journals there is a more recent version of the article (“On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980-2010″) in Orbis (Volume 55, Issue 2, 2011, Pages 216-239 ).

So WHY? I argue that this myth has lived on for so long for one or both of two reasons: (1) Blame outsiders! US forces, local Afghan and Pakistani security forces get to conveniently say that far off foreign nasties are crawling all over the place. Certainly not locals, because they are quite happy with US forces, the Afghan government and the Pakistani security forces. So must be outside trouble makers. Anyways,  it’s also a way to attempt to delegitimize the insurgency by saying they’re “not from around here. They’re not even from a neighboring country.” Chechens get tossed into this category. (2) Ignorance. It’s often safer to assume ignorance rather that any sort of diabolical plan.

Yes, I’ve seen/heard it mentioned several times that “Chechen” is somewhat of a catch-all phrase for unidentifiable foreign Muslim. And yes, I’ve heard that people who are actually tasked with tracking foreign fighters don’t believe that there are hordes of Chechens out there. But it is still bemusing to see this zombie story keep stumbling along.

I am open to being contradicted. But I don’t think that this will happen. The closest you will get will be someone with a Russian passport. They have had the section that indicates ethnicity scrubbed out since 1997, so there may still be some investigative work required. There have been “tourists” from Russia, but the closest to Chechen we’ve gotten have been non-Chechen Muslims from various areas of Russia (e.g., the Russian citizens at Guantanamo were from Tatarstan, Khabardino-Balkaria, Bashkortostan, Chelyabinsk and Tyumen). One Siberian convert named Andrei even showed up in Afghanistan dressed like a girl.

This sort of silly RUMINT being tossed to reporters is noting new, even in regards to Afghanistan. Bruce Amstutz writes that during the Soviet-Afghan War there were rumors of Bulgarians, Palestinians, Vietnamese, Czechs, Ethiopians, East Germans  and Cubans on the battlefield. It was a veritable orgy of communist/internationalist solidarity (Yasser Arafat spoke early on in support of the Soviet presence, fyi). Or maybe it was just BS.

And the Cubans? Hilariously, some locals guessed that soldiers in “black face” were Cubans, rather than Soviet soldiers in who blackened their faces for night operations.

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Side note: blogging will continue to be a rare occurrence around here. I’m still quite busy with the final draft of my dissertation and the job search…


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