In the run-up to the November 19 Lisbon NATO-Russia summit, an article in the latest issue of Newsweek looks at the ways in which Russia is currently drawing advantage from the Western powers’ difficulties in Afghanistan. These difficulties are highlighted by the impending major defence cuts in the UK and other European states, and by Russia’s projected 140% increase in military spending over the next three years. In particular, the article considers the possibility of a trade-off between Western security needs in the Afghan conflict and Russia’s plans for Eastern Europe, still seen by Moscow as a legitimate sphere of military and political influence. Excerpt:
In return for cooperation in Afghanistan, Moscow is asking for substantial concessions from NATO. A draft agreement on NATO-Russian cooperation penned by the Kremlin and released last December includes proposed restrictions on NATO deployment of any force bigger than a 3,000-strong brigade in the combined territory of all former Soviet bloc members. Russia is also demanding that NATO not attempt to station more than 24 aircraft in Eastern Europe for more than 42 days a year. Most controversially, Russia also has demanded veto power on any Western military deployments of large additional forces anywhere in Central Europe, the Balkans, or the Baltics. To top off the wish list, the Kremlin wants limits lifted on Russian troops in the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In Commentary, James Kirchick laments how backing for an authoritarian leader in Russia’s backyard may have cost the U.S. support from a natural ally in the war against terror. Excerpt:
the simple fact is that the war against the Taliban would be made immeasurably more difficult were the Manas air base to close. Insofar as the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan would be a disaster for the people of that country and present a haven for al-Qaeda, ensuring a stable government there is not just an American concern but also a global one. And Bishkek has its own national interests in this realm as well. In the immediate years prior to 9/11, militants from the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group sheltered by the Taliban, launched multiple attacks into southern Kyrgyzstan. That doesn’t mean that the domestic problems of Kyrgyzstan are not important. But fixing them (something that is largely the responsibility of the Kyrgyz people themselves and beyond the seemingly awesome powers of the United States) cannot come at the expense of eliminating a vital supply line to Afghanistan.
The BBC’s Frank Gardner has once again invoked the “Chechen ghosts” in his latest video dispatch from “Operation Moshtarak”, which contains references to insurgents from Chechnya. Although the video is not on the BBC’s website, it repeats allegations from Gardner’s earlier reports, such as this one from October 2009 (excerpt):
The overall picture is further confused because some Pakistani officials erroneously assume that Islamic fighters from other countries – such as Chechnya – are from Uzbekistan.
While it’s perfectly possible that some of the foreign fighters in the region are Chechen, it would be good to see some proof or demonstration of this by the BBC – otherwise, the reports merely look either Kremlin-influenced or Kremlin-supporting.
A senior official at Amnesty International, Gita Sahgal, has gone public and has openly accused the human rights organization of collaborating with terrorist suspects. In the Sunday Times, Richard Kerbaj writes that Sahgal has taken this step because she feels that Amnesty has ignored warnings about the involvement of a prominent British Islamist, Moazzam Begg, in Amnesty’s “Counter Terror with Justice” campaign:
“I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,” Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. “To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”
Gita Sahgal has been suspended from her post at Amnesty.
The Islamist tactic of embarrassing and isolating human rights organizations by methods that include infiltration and false propaganda is not a new one. In Eastern Europe organizations like Prague Watchdog, which monitors human rights in Russia’s North Caucasus, have long tolerated the unauthorized appropriation of their material by jihadist websites which republish it without attribution, and try forcibly to establish an association in this way. While Prague Watchdog has not yet been infiltrated, it is the object of virulent attacks by sites like Kavkaz Center, which seek to weaken its influence and harm its reputation.
The uneasy relation between the various interest groups among those, both in the North Caucasus and outside it, who have tried to see a way through the problematic political and social landscape of this troubled part of the world, came to the fore again recently on Norbert Strade’s long-lived Chechnya Short List. Norbert has once again posted one of his periodic “Chechen ghosts” items, this time a clipping from the Independent newspaper – an article by a British journalist who quoted a Western bomb disposal expert as saying that a new type of IED being used by the Taleban in Afghanistan was based on expertise “coming from foreign fighters from places such as Chechnya”.
According to the received wisdom in a certain section of the Chechnya human rights community, Chechens cannot be found in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan. Even though Chechnya’s Islamic fundamentalists – who act separately from the increasingly out-of-favour nationalists – are as opposed to the U.S., Israel and the West as their Taleban counterparts, by a section of the human rights campaigners they are thought to be exclusively focused on eliminating Russian control of the region. This approach seemingly ignores the fact that on websites such as Kavkaz Center and Kavkazan Haamash, Chechen, Dagestani and Ingush Islamists routinely issue anti-Western statements. It would surely not be surprising if one or two Chechens ended up on the Afghan front lines, though the numbers can be disputed. There is also the complicating factor that such participation can be used by the Russian government in its ongoing campaign against Chechnya, which seeks to tar all Chechens with the brush of Islamic extremism.
To point out that it might be kinder and more realistic to treat Chechens as fallible human beings who might fall into political extremism either deliberately or as a result of being duped, rather than as paragons of national-revolutionary virtue who can do no wrong, is not a popular line to take in Norbert Strade’s forum. I have already been attacked by the recently-reappeared Mikael Storsjö (who has done much in word and deed to support the Islamic fighters and their ideologists in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus), and other responses have been equally hostile. In the end one is forced to conclude that what really drives the opinions of these avowed pro-Chechens is an antipathy to Western political and military influence per se – as well as to the Kremlin’s foreign policy. For if sites like Kavkaz Center are really just projects of the unreformed Russian/Soviet KGB, then why give them any support?