Posted by: Christian | August 24, 2007

Imaginary Chechens Attack!

August 24, 2007.

Way back in the day (2001-2002), I saw several reports in the media about the hoards of Chechens that were battling US-NATO and their local allies in Afghanistan. I thought “WTF? Why have they left a perfectly good fight on home soil back in Chechnya?” Of course it turned out to be totally false, yet this myth persists to this day.

Who was saying this about the Chechens? Usually it was journalists, American officers or other US government spokespersons. It usually went something like this: “Yeah, we’re fighting the hardcore al Qaeda troops right now. You know, Arabs, Uzbeks, Malaysians, um….Uyghurs……and…uh …..the reanimated zombie corpses of Confederate soldiers and Chechens.” OK, maybe they did not actually say Malaysians but you get the point.

Who gave these people the idea that there were Chechens to be fought in Afghanistan? Well, to start with, Jane’s said so in 2001:

Chechen units and the forces of the IMU constitute the other two main foreign contingents. While organisationally separate with distinct leaderships, links between Islamist militants from the two ex-Soviet territories are longstanding and it seems likely that Chechens are today attached to IMU combat units. […]

Jane’s went on:

To the fury of Moscow, a Chechen embassy was first established in Kabul in January 2000 and Chechen consulates were later set up in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. As with the Arabs, there has grown up a civilian Chechen community in cities such as Kandahar and Mazar. Military bases have been identified at Kod-e-Barq outside Mazar; and at a facility just south of the highway between Tashkurgan and Mazar. At least one all-Chechen unit – a platoon of some 30 fighters – has been identified operating on the front line near Bagram airbase, north of Kabul.

Wow. If you say something with this much detail, it must be true. Actually, the only thing here that is definitely true is the part about the embassy, which was very small and had the worst embassy parties ever. [Note added in 2011: No, I don’t believe that there was an embassy. The preceding commentary was my attempt at heavy sarcasm.]

And who else? Ahmed Rashid said this in September of 2000:

….the Taliban have some 6,000-7,000 troops that include Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs from the forces of Osama Bin Laden, and the multi-ethnic forces of the IMU and its leader Juma Namangani. The IMU has a wide recruiting base of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Chechens and even some Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang province.

Strike out the part about Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Chechens and the above statement is accurate.

The State Department said this in early 2003:

Al-Qa’ida’s select “055 Brigade,” which fought against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, included a number of Chechens, many of whom were likely followers of Basayev, Barayev and Khattab. Then SPIR commander Arbi Barayev sent at least one group of his fighters to train in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. In October 2001, al-Khattab sent additional fighters to Afghanistan…

Until this point in the statement of case, the State Department author had been painting a picture support going from Afghanistan to Chechnya and of small scale visits by Chechens to Afghanistan for training.

And in 2005 STRATFOR wrote this:

In addition to the madrassa students and local fighters, there is a significant foreign element in the insurgency. The U.S. military has confirmed kills of Uzbeks, Urdu-speaking fighters and fighters from Central Asia. In addition, there have also been confirmed kills of Chechens.

The Chechens in Afghanistan are the insurgency’s elite fighters. They are deployed as personal security details for important insurgent commanders and as trainers for new recruits. Chechen fighters often go into combat with local Afghan insurgents and fighters recruited from the madrassas to act as advisors and give the younger fighters confidence. It is quite possible that the Chechen fighters rotate through Afghanistan in an effort to enhance their influence in the worldwide jihadist movement, by lending their skills to the fight in Afghanistan. The Chechens’ involvement could also be meant to repay al Qaeda and the Taliban for helping them in their fight in Russia.

What’s sad is that somebody was paid quite well to write this analysis. The above passage is 100% wrong.

And in July American PSYOPS (I think) tried to undercut the Quetta Shura’s reputation by suggesting in some fake pamphlets that Mullah Omar gave Chechens and Uzbeks the commander roles in Afghanistan. Ahmed Rashid has now come around and disagreed with the assertion about the Uzbeks and Chechens.

Were there any skeptics? Of course there were. And of course they were the experts. And of course they were ignored. Fred Weir wrote a fair and nuanced article in the Christian Science Monitor back in 2002 about Chechens in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the headline writer butchered the title and wrote: “Chechnya’s Warrior Tradition: Guerillas from Russia’s longtime nemesis take their fighting skills to Afghanistan.” Oh, well. If you actually read beyond the headline you will find both sides of the story. The US military side says this:

“There are a lot of them, and they sure know how to fight,” an un-named US officer told Agence France-Presse after US troops clashed with Chechen guerrillas in this month’s “Operation Anaconda,” aimed at corralling diehard Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains. General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces, was more circumspect at a Moscow press conference last week. “The number of nationalities represented in the detainees we have is about 35 and, to be sure, the Chechen nationality is represented among those nations,” he said.

Good job General Franks. If you actually checked you would have found no Chechens “among those nations.”

The Christian Science Monitor found some skeptics:

But most experts who study the tiny, traditionally Muslim republic of Chechnya say they doubt its legendary warriors have joined Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network in large enough numbers to become its “biggest single component,” as some reports have claimed. For one thing, they say, most Chechens are not religious. “Islam did not strike deep roots among the Chechens, and has played only a slight role in their rebellions against Russian rule in the past,” says Alexander Iskanderyan, head of the independent Center for Caucasus Studies in Moscow. “Religion is not the key to understanding Chechens; their painful past is.”

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert had this to say in the CSM article:

“Of course, there are some; there have always been some Chechen volunteers and mercenaries fighting in wars around the Near East and Central Asia. But as far as anyone can estimate, the majority of Chechen men are still in Chechnya or the immediate region, and they are continuing to fight the only enemy that has ever mattered to them, which is Russia.”

Ask the Chechen fighters about the idea of them being in Afghanistan and they get a bit annoyed and then they get even more annoyed.

I’ll now move fully over to the skeptics side and introduce you to Nabi Abdullaev of The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Writing in The Moscow Times in December 2001 Abdullaev started with the headline “Are Chechens in Afghanistan?” and started to dig. He found that “most, but not all” regional experts doubt that there are large numbers of Chechens in Afghanistan. Abdullaev quoted Timur Muzayev of Panorama:

“There is no reason for Chechens to go to fight in Afghanistan because the ideological basis for resistance for the majority of the rebels is defending their own land. And those Chechens who view themselves as religious warriors against the infidels can also nicely defend their faith in Chechnya, without going anywhere else.”

Abdullaev even looked to Chechen mafia/government advisor/terrorist/assassin Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev for his point of view:

Another Chechen insider, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, who was widely believed to be a confidant and private banker of first Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, also said it was absurd for Chechens to be fighting in Afghanistan — because the Taliban does not need them. There is no shortage of fighters in Afghanistan, which essentially already has been at war for 23 years, and a few dozen Chechens could provide little help to the Taliban, he wrote…

Just a note: be careful when writing about Nukhayev. He may still be alive (but probably not) and he may have killed the journalist Paul Klebnikov over an unflattering portrayal. Maybe. It was in Russia so who knows.

In the CSM article, Alexander Pikayev at the Carnegie Center estimated that there were a few dozen Chechens in Afghanistan while Viktor Korgun at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow said that maybe there were 1,000 Chechens in Afghanistan at the beginning of operations. However, Nabi Abdullaev, this time writing for the Jamestown Foundation in 2002, noted that according to independent analysts the active Chechen resistance at home numbers about 300 fighters.

Presuming there was the motivation, where’s the spare capacity with this few fighters to send fighters to Afghanistan? In another Jamestown article in early 2002 Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky said that while he was in Afghanistan he could not find:

“…a single Chechen fighter, dead or alive.” “All the Russian journalists in Afghanistan received instructions to find Chechens, but we inspected all of the jails, asked all of the [Afghan] field commanders–in vain….”

The myth about the Chechen really should have fallen apart when the US government revealed the identities of the captives at Guantanamo Bay. Of the eight captives from the Russian Federation, none were Chechens. Yuri Kovalenko asked the obvious question:

“How has it happened that among the several thousand foreign fighters taken into prison in Afghanistan, not a single Chechen has been discovered? There are likewise none among the 500 prisoners in the hands of the Americans, including those interned at the Cuban base at Guantanamo…Not one Chechen has been found among the 3,000 fighters imprisoned in the dungeon of Shibirgan….

Of the eight men from Russia three were from Tatarstan, two were from Khabardino-Balkaria, one from Bashkortostan, one from Chelyabinsk and one from Tyumen.

And it is even possible that one of these men was actually rescued from the Taliban. He claims that upon crossing the Amu Darya the Taliban captured he and his friend and accused them of being Russian spies. His friend had his throat slit and he was tortured in Kandahar for his troubles. Anyways, they all have interesting stories.

Jamestown kept pushing the issue in September in their Chechnya Weekly article titled “No Evidence of Chechens in Afghanistan.” But Chechnya Weekly was having problems getting answers for US government sources:

Have Chechen separatist guerrillas been fighting against the United States and its allies in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan–and if so, how many have been captured or killed? The U.S. government has been strikingly passive in seeking to learn (or, at least, in publicly disclosing) the answer to that question. Chechnya Weekly began pressing for a precise, concrete answer months ago, but we have yet to get one from the White House, Pentagon, or State Department.

In this article we find out about Brian Glyn Williams, a professor who likes going out and getting his own answers. Williams, an oddity who is an expert on both Chechnya and Afghanistan, went to Afghanistan to find out what exactly is going on.

Williams then wrote two articles here and here that totally destroyed the Chechen myth. And when I say destroy I mean that anybody who wants to stand by the Chechen myth after reading his articles can obviously not handle facts and logic.

My favorite part of Williams’ article is Williams’ own favorite media account:

The U.S. Customs Service issued a bulletin late last week urging law enforcement to be on the lookout for two possible Chechen terrorists who may try to enter the United States through Mexico, then travel to Montana. (“Are Chechen terrorists headed for Montana?” Chris Vlasto, ABC News.)

Montana? They must be after our strategic reserves of sheep and ’58 Dodge pick-up trucks.

Williams even quotes both Robert Young Pelton and Carlotta Gall as having deduced that there are no Chechens in Afghanistan.

So who is telling these “misrepresentations of reality?” The originators would be the Russian FSB and the Kremlin, trying to tie in the fight against the Chechens into the American war on terror and legitimizing their operations in Chechnya. Many in the Russian media picked this up and ran with it. They were very soon joined by American journalists who were repeating the Russian journalists, and most importantly, the US Department of Defense. The DoD likely did so out of sheer ignorance (an ignorance shared by many stateside). However, it is possible that the desire to show Russia the need for an American base in Central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan was a motivating factor. Also, the US would like to portray the resistance to them in Afghanistan as coming from crazed Jihadis from far off lands when really it’s coming from locals and Pakistanis. This joined the Americans and the Russians in some mutually beneficial storytelling.

And they have now been joined by Pakistan, who is trying to convince the world that all problems back home are the result of foreigners, hence the stream of reports about the masses of Uzbeks and Chechens in the tribal areas. And when Afghan and Pakistani locals talk about Chechens they are doing so because they both know what the interviewer wants to hear, they are repeating what local leaders say, and they are trying to deflect attention away from the ethnic Pashtuns (usually locals) who are being identified as “Chechens.”

When I hear some US officer reciting the list of assorted foreign bad guys they are fighting, I know he just parroting some old stale info that was never true in the first place. I doubt people like these have agendas. They have just been done a disservice by the media, various governments and some analysts. The news still circulates and you will find accounts like this via The Fourth Rail or this article in today’s Telegraph or this account by a Pakistani security official a couple of weeks ago.

Oh well. The good news come in small bits and pieces. I read or watched an interview (that I can’t find) with an American Officer on the Eastern border and noted his reaction to a question about Chechens and other foreigners that he was expected to fight. He very politely said that he was not expecting to fight any of those ethnicities. Just Afghans and Pakistanis. So perhaps the soldiers who are in the fight are actually doing some of their own analysis based on the reality that they see.

I will add a small caveat. Perhaps there are a small handful of Chechens in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But their numbers would likely be very small (i.e., counted on one or two hands). Stranger things have happened. But that being said, when you hear about Americans or Pakistanis engaging Chechens, be sure that they engaged regular old Afghan Pashtuns or Pakistani locals.

So why does this all annoy me? Because:

A. Some analysts are being paid to peddle false information.

B. Believing this plays into the hands of the Russian and Pakistani governments.

C. It’s a constant reminder of how bad some journalists are.

D. It allows the US and Afghan government to blame some of the conflict on “meddling outsiders.” They should look to Afghan locals and to Paksitani “visitors” to blame for this (in addition to looking in the mirror and assessing what they are doing to prolong the conflict).

E. It is a disservice to US-NATO trops and Afghan security forces to feed them bad intel.

F. It’s just not true.

Even John Walker Lindh (The American Taliban) had this to say to Robert Young Pelton:

“Here, in Afghanistan, I haven’t seen any Chechens.”

Yeah, because they have all gone to Montana.


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