Winning a War While Not Losing the Peace
No. 1 2005 January/March
Alexey Arbatov

Full Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Director of the International Security Center at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations; a member of the Russian delegation to the START I negotiations (1990); and Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee of the State Duma (1994-2003).

Is there anything in common between the armed conflicts in
Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq? The answer is, practically
everything is different: their history, their nature (internal or
external), the composition of the conflicting parties and their
goals, the legal basis, social and political consequences, etc.
Yet, there are some points that permit us to compare these
conflicts and even learn some vital lessons from them.

The military operations in Chechnya and Iraq (launched in 1999
and 2003, respectively) have not put an end to the resistance of
local armed groups nor have they brought about social and political
stability. Moreover, they have transformed the conflicts into
protracted guerilla warfare; increasingly, this involves
international terrorism and the escalation of terrorist methods. In
contrast, the operation in Afghanistan (2001-2002) actually
suppressed the armed opposition and created prerequisites for
stabilization and the restoration of peace. Those efforts had all
the chances for success, but for the U.S. campaign in Iraq which
distracted resources from Afghanistan, undermined the authority of
the United Nations, split the antiterrorist coalition and inspired
the Taliban and al Qaeda to seek revenge.


When statesmen and politicians, sitting comfortably in their
luxurious air-conditioned offices, decide to send young soldiers
into the line of fire, in mud and blood, from where they may well
return home crippled or in coffins, these statesmen and politicians
must be absolutely sure that all the other means to solve the
problem have been exhausted and that the military option is the
last resort. This is their supreme moral duty. This was the case
with Afghanistan, when it had become unquestionable that al Qaeda
was responsible for “Black September” and all attempts to get the
Taliban to repudiate terrorists had failed.

In 1999, Russia launched the Chechen campaign following bomb
attacks on apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, and the
Wahabi insurrection in Dagestan. However, the federal center
activated a full-scale military operation against Chechnya without
attempting other ways to settle the conflict. For example, many
politicians and military commanders proposed fencing off the
rebellious Chechen Republic along its administrative borders or
along the borders and the northern bank of the Terek River. There
were suggestions for combining these measures with special
operations, pinpoint strikes against the insurgents’ infrastructure
and troops, the formation of an internal armed Chechen opposition
to the regime, and other such moves. However, Moscow chose another
way, which it thought would be more resolute and expedient. The
result is obvious: casualties among federal troops alone have by
now exceeded 20,000 killed and wounded. The recent series of
terrorist acts, which culminated in the monstrous tragedy in
Beslan, demonstrated that there is still a very long way to go
before stability is achieved in the Caucasus. This fact is now
acknowledged even by those denying that there is a direct link
between Beslan and the Chechen war.

Iraq provides an even more graphic example. Today, there is
already documented proof that the White House made the decision to
launch a military operation against Iraq back in the spring of
2002. All of the subsequent political maneuvers with regard to U.S.
allies and Russia, as well as the diplomatic gambits in the United
Nations, were only a “seasoning” for the use of force. Not long
ago, the number of American casualties in Iraq exceeded one
thousand, and the end of the Iraqi quagmire is nowhere in

In cases like the aforementioned examples, maximum legitimacy,
i.e. the legal basis, and clarity of a military operation’s
purposes are of significant importance. Perhaps politicians,
proficient in manipulating the law, do not need this. However, it
is necessary for such operations to receive the support of public
opinion inside the country going to war, as well as of the
international community. Such support, serving as a strong
political rear, would provide high morale to soldiers going into
combat and make them confident that their cause is right and they
will not be treated as outcasts after coming back home.

This is also important because it helps regulate relations
between troops and the local population, reducing inevitable
frictions to the minimum. Finally, it is a major factor for
undermining the morale of armed resistance.

The unanimously adopted resolution of the UN Security Council on
the use of force in Afghanistan accomplished all these tasks. The
resolution was a creation of the international community’s unity
and laid the foundation for a broad antiterrorist coalition of many
countries which united for a common goal. (In the autumn of 2001,
according to the reporters, the formerly invincible Taliban
fighters said: “We will die – the entire world is against us.”)

The Russian government did not introduce a state of emergency in
Chechnya in either of the two military campaigns, although by law
the armed forces were only to be used inside the country under a
state of emergency. There was the same uncertainty about the goals
of the operation and acceptable methods for conducting it
(President Vladimir Putin in a recent statement expressed his
amazement at the scale of destruction in Chechnya’s capital
Grozny). This lack of clarity largely predetermined the mixed
reaction to the campaign on the part of Russian political quarters,
the mass media and the international community.

Perhaps there are forces that nurture malicious plans for
dismembering Russia, as President Putin declared after Beslan.
However, this “admixture” by no means determines mainstream
sentiments amongst the Russian liberal opposition, nor public
opinion in the U.S. and Western Europe. There is a persistent
inclination of the powers that be to lay blame for their policy
mistakes on external and internal enemies. This, however, does not
help correct the mistakes and only leads policy deeper into a

For example, without a clearly formulated state-of-emergency
regime all issues regarding relations with the local population
were addressed at the level of regiment commanders (as seen from
the case of Colonel Yuri Budanov, who was accused of raping and
killing a young Chechen woman), company commanders or even private
soldiers. Without clear-cut legal regulations, it is difficult for
the population and troops to understand what they can do and what
they cannot do – at this point Kalashnikov assault rifle becomes
the law. Soldiers cannot distinguish peaceful civilians from
militants, while militants have broad opportunities for organizing
sneak attacks on federal troops; this exposes the peaceful
population to retaliatory attacks by the federal troops, which in
turn causes the victims of those attacks to join the militant
ranks. (It is no accident that the estimated number of active
Chechen militants has for many years remained at about 2,000-3,000,
despite the continuous casualties inflicted by the federal troops.)
The federal troops, operating in an environment of boundless
corruption and constantly being stabbed in the back, regard all
Chechens as potential traitors and enemies. Thus, they lose their
bearings with regard to the purpose of their actions and the
meaning of their sacrifices.

Russian law stipulates that a state of emergency must be
approved every two months by a resolution of parliament. This
provision seems to restrict the freedom of action for the executive
branch. In reality, however, as follows from the two Chechen
campaigns (especially the second one, in which troops and law
enforcement agencies were given a free hand), such freedom does not
necessarily make a policy more effective. This is why democratic
procedures are needed: they help check the effectiveness of a
policy and conformity between the goals and the means. They help to
reveal mistakes before bloody upheavals break out.

A preliminary detailed and open discussion of military and
political plans in parliament, in connection with the introduction
of a state of emergency, might have safeguarded the government from
a rush to war, and provided alternative strategies, such as a
blockade. In any case, this precaution would have made it possible
to thoroughly check the state of troops, law enforcement agencies
and secret services, to enhance their readiness, and to prevent
corruption. This would have prevented the inadequacy of the troops
and security agencies four years later during the Beslan

The use of force by the United States in Iraq was not based on a
resolution of the UN Security Council, which alone is authorized to
sanction any use of force, save cases of lawful self-defense
(Article 51 of the UN Charter). Perhaps Washington viewed the
efforts to reach a consensus in the Security Council as long, dull
and unnecessary diplomatic procedure which would tie its hands and
prevent it from effectively using its colossal military might as a
quick way to solve its problems.
The untenable American arguments in favor of war, which failed to
influence the positions of a majority of the UN Security Council
members, doomed the U.S. policy to catastrophe. Washington has
never been able to prove any link between the regime of Saddam
Hussein and terrorists – because there was no such link. Nor did
Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction. In order to arrive at
such a conclusion, it was only necessary to broaden UN weapon
inspections headed by the famous UN diplomat Hans Blix.
Washington’s real goal – implanting a pro-American (“democratic”)
regime by force in a politically immature and diverse ethnic and
religious country, such as Iraq – was simply hopeless. Equally
unattainable were the plans to open up world markets to Iraqi oil
amidst guerrilla and terrorist warfare. Neither objective would
have been approved by the Security Council had Washington openly
declared its goals. But had Washington not ignored the issue of
legitimacy of its policy and had it refrained from military action
bypassing UN – it would have saved the U.S. from its greatest
failure since the Vietnam War.

The American army went to Iraq with half of the U.S. opposed to
the military campaign; public opinion was the same throughout
Western Europe, Russia and almost the entire Islamic world. Having
completed the military phase of the operation quickly and
professionally, the American soldiers encountered the growing
resistance of the Iraqi population – on whom they had intended to
bestow “democracy.” The army ceased to understand the purpose of
its presence in the country and the meaning of its mounting losses.
The troops’ morale began falling, while the armed resistance and
terror were on the rise.


The strategy of fighting non-state military groups (rebels,
insurgents, guerrillas) is not a case of simply killing as many
militants as possible, but rather depriving them in various ways of
support amongst an overwhelming part of the peaceful population in
the conflict zone. Otherwise, an indiscriminate use of force and
harsh “preventive” measures against civilians would only cause them
to side with the enemy, thus providing it with fresh forces.

It is much easier to prevent peaceful citizens from taking up
arms than making them lay down arms later. It is better to let ten
militants escape than to kill one peaceful civilian. It is even
justifiable to permit additional risks for the governmental
soldiers in order to avoid inflicting excessive casualties against
innocent people – in the final analysis, this strategy will pay off
as there will be fewer people who will have the desire to shoot,
take hostages or carry out a suicide-bomb mission.

A selective use of force, together with the effort to win over
the local population, is the main way to win such wars. This method
helped suppress the resistance of the Taliban and al Qaeda in
Afghanistan (prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq) quickly and
with minimum losses. Ignoring this method or being unable to use it
effectively in Chechnya and Iraq has led to a blind course with
constant upsurges in the horizontal (geographical) and vertical (in
terms of violence scale) escalation of armed clashes and terrorist


This part considers the importance of relying on local forces.
In Afghanistan, the forces of the Northern Alliance were organized,
armed and trained within a record period of time. They bore the
main burden of the ground fighting – the most difficult type of
combat that may involve the greatest number of clashes with the
local population. Russia, together with some other countries
(Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran) under its influence, played a
great role in this. The U.S. and its allies conducted limited
ground operations and provided largely air, missile, artillery,
logistic and command and communications support. The enemy, for its
part, failed to use the fierce ground fighting for kindling
religious discord (all the parties to the conflict were Moslems).
Great efforts were made to prevent ethnic hostilities: the
anti-Taliban coalition made every effort to win over the Pushtus,
who made the core of the Taliban, to its side and offered them high
posts in the postwar political system of Afghanistan.

In Chechnya, in November 1994, Moscow also attempted to rely on
the internal opposition to the Dzhokhar Dudayev regime. However,
after the first failure, rather than better preparing itself and
continuing with this strategy, Moscow decided to take everything
upon itself. It relied on the bragging of its military leaders (as
the then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev boasted, his federal troops
could defeat the insurgents “with one paratroop regiment within two
hours”). The result was dismal: over a decade the conflict
developed into religious and ethnic enmity and a terrorist war
without boundaries or moral limits.

In Iraq, the U.S. army and its “coalition of the willing” also
took everything upon themselves. At first they scored a brilliant
military victory, but eventually became bogged down in an endless
guerrilla and terrorist conflict with an increasingly radical
Islamic and nationalistic tinge.


This lesson is related to the aspect of postwar stabilization.
Until armed resistance is not suppressed, there should be no rush
to form a local government just so the war burden may be shifted
onto its shoulders. Whenever such a government is involved in a
domestic and trans-border armed conflict it is fully dependent on
the outside armed forces, yet it does not control these forces at
all. This is why it is not capable of gaining support of the larger
part of the local population and therefore assuming a policy of
restoring peace.

Moreover, a dependent regime will inevitably add to the division
of society, even among the more moderate local circles, and will
increase the influence of the radical opposition. Such a regime
creates additional difficulties, since it attempts to pursue its
own policy (often a repressive one), yet leaves it up to the army
to address the consequences. The outside troops and law enforcement
agencies must necessarily involve such a regime and its police into
their operations and thus constantly run the risk of information
leakage, treachery and being stabbed in the back. Furthermore, a
newly established regime will impede, in every possible way,
negotiations even with a moderate part of the armed opposition.
This will only serve to aggravate the conflict and thwart any


If the conditions arise for forming a local government, this
must be done not according to imported rules, but by taking into
account local traditions and the level of society’s social,
political and economic development. It is better that this is
initiated from the rank-and-file and representative bodies of
power, rather than from higher levels of government, including the
executive structures. There should also be no hurry to organize
local armed forces, since the new authorities must coexist with the
outside armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

In this respect, the policy pursued in Afghanistan was for the
most part successful, whereas the operations in Chechnya and Iraq
have been largely plagued by mistakes and failures.


This lesson concerns, perhaps, the most difficult issue, and
that is the question of negotiating with terrorists. During
hostage-taking crisis, some countries (e.g., Italy) conduct such
negotiations. Others (e.g., Israel) do not, and in these places the
terrorists do not take hostages, but simply use suicide bombers to
kill innocent citizens.
There must be no doubt that if it is impossible or very risky to
free hostages by force, then negotiations must be conducted. Even
if this may damage the prestige of the state and encourage more
hostage-taking, there can be only one moral principle here: if the
authorities, with all their law enforcement and security bodies,
and being supported by taxpayer money, are unable to protect their
citizens from terrorists, then they must save them any way
possible. Then, the officials who allowed the hostage-taking and
consequently damaged the state’s prestige by their concessions
should either resign or improve their operations in order to
guarantee that there is no recurrence of such events in the future.
For those who hold the state’s prestige dearer than the life of
hostages, there is a noble way out of the quandary: these officials
can offer themselves to the terrorists in exchange for the hostages
(surely the terrorists will accept such an offer with pleasure) and
then, staking their own lives instead of the lives of other people,
they can take the manly position of repudiating any “deals” with

When speaking about more general negotiations which are aimed at
achieving a peaceful settlement to terrorist-prone conflicts, such
negotiations are necessary if armed opposition cannot be suppressed
by force, and if the conflict tends to escalate. There are two
criteria for choosing counterparts to the negotiation process:
first, they must be individuals whose reputations have not been
sullied by the organization or participation in terrorist acts, and
second, they must enjoy support among the local population. Lastly,
they must be able to control a large part of the militants in order
to make them lay down arms on certain terms.

The analogies, recently drawn by President Putin between Aslan
Maskhadov and Osama bin Laden, are not quite correct. Bin Laden can
rather be compared with Shamil Basayev, with whom no one proposes
holding negotiations. On the other hand, parallels between
Maskhadov and, say, Iraq’s former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz
(included on a “black list” by Americans and subsequently
imprisoned by them) or the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
can be drawn, although, of course, any such analogies are

The main issue is not, of course, legal aspects (in this respect
the conflicts in Chechnya, Iraq and Palestine are completely
different), but rather the dynamics of an armed conflict with a
clearly expressed terrorist coloring, together with the sensitive
issue of negotiating with the enemy. When the involvement of one or
another opposition leader in terrorism or other crimes is a mute
issue, the settlement of the negotiations issue requires enormous
state will and political skill. And in this respect neither the
U.S. nor Israel have any grounds for preaching to Russia about
which examples it should follow. Both of them have had quite a poor
In Afghanistan, a peaceful settlement following the military
operation would have been impossible without negotiations and
without the involvement in the process of Pushtu leaders, including
those who were closely linked with the Taliban, but who had not
compromised themselves by collaborating with al Qaeda.


The eighth lesson seems to be purely technical, but in reality
it is political. Without shutting off the boundaries of an armed
conflict zone, operations against militants and terrorists are like
drawing water with a sieve. If the boundaries are porous,
guerrillas freely enter the area, delivering supplies and executing
attacks, and then elude pursuit by escaping across the border. Once
they are beyond the border, they are able to rest, reorganize and
“exchange experiences.” Worst of all, open borders help militants,
escaping retaliation, to put peaceful civilians under retaliatory
strikes and thus cause them to join their ranks. This is one part
of the political question concerning the border issue.

There is another aspect. too. The closure of a conflict zone is
not only a problem of resources, well-trained troops (e.g.,
frontier troops), equipment and legislation (for example, using
frontier troops on Chechnya’s administrative borders requires
amendments to the law On the State Border of the Russian
Federation). It is also an issue concerning relations with adjacent
countries, that is, a problem of establishing an antiterrorist
coalition on the basis of the settlement of a wide range of
disputes concerning interstate relations.

In Afghanistan, this concept worked – with Russia’s active
participation – when different and rather hostile neighboring
countries (such as Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and
Uzbekistan), united in a general front and closed their borders
against the Taliban and al Qaeda. On the other hand, the U.S.
campaign in Iraq disunited this coalition and made the Afghan
borders mostly open; this led to the mujahideen stepping up their
activities and infiltrating the country.

In Chechnya, all the administrative boundaries, except for the
southern border with Georgia, remain open for the movement of the
militants, while Russia’s relations with adjacent countries –
Azerbaijan and especially Georgia – leave much to be desired.
Together with the absence of a legal regime such as a state of
emergency, Chechnya’s porous boundaries are the greatest obstacle
to an effective policy against the guerrilla units and terrorists,
which would involve both military and political actions to deprive
the militants of the peaceful population’s support.

As far as Iraq is concerned, Washington was so confident of its
military superiority that it did not bother to give consideration
to such a “trifle” as the Iraqi borders. Moreover, neighboring Iran
and Syria were included by Washington in the ‘axis of evil’ and
were named as prospective targets for U.S. attacks. This factor
guaranteed these countries’ unwillingness to cooperate. Thus, Iraq
has become a veritable Mecca for terrorists from around the world,
who come and go across open borders quite freely, thus greatly
reducing the effectiveness of the U.S. military and political


Before launching operations of this kind, it is important to
give considerable thought to a postwar settlement. Such an approach
justified itself in Afghanistan. The second Chechen campaign and,
to an even greater extent, the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated
that it is possible to win a war and yet lose the peace; this fact
makes a mockery of even the most brilliantly conceived military
operations. Without a well-conceived and realistic plan for
restoring peace (that includes reliance on the non-hostile local
forces) it would not be prudent to start a war, whatever military
superiority one possesses.


This concerns the new nature and role of terrorism in such
conflicts. Many factors have removed the border between internal
and international terrorism, such as the modern exchange of
information and transport facilities, enormous revenues from drug
trafficking and trans-border crime, and the availability of almost
any kind of weapon from state arsenals, as well as the black
market. Terrorism has acquired development dynamics of its own and
rests on the foundation of global organization and finance. Today,
terrorism freely “flows” from one conflict to another (Chechnya –
Palestine – Iraq – Afghanistan – Indonesia – Macedonia – Kashmir)
and creates its own ideology, strategy, arsenals, recruitment and
training bases, professional cells and networks, and

Accordingly, the goals of terrorism have changed, as well.
Today, they are no longer the rights of ethnic and religious
minorities or social groups, even if this is what is proclaimed in
public. The main goal of international terrorism now is the
maintenance and expansion of its ‘habitat,’ namely, ethnic and
religious conflicts, extremism of any kind, and disruption and
chaos in ‘failing’ states (in which it finds it easier to take
refuge and pull manpower).

Terrorist organizations no longer seek to force states to solve
religious, ethnic, social or political problems, even on the terms
of the extremists. On the contrary, terrorist acts, apart from the
shock effect, are now aimed primarily at preventing any peaceful
settlement by provoking the public to oppose “negotiating with
terrorists.” It is not accidental that upsurges of terror occur
whenever a negotiating process is about to begin, or when there
emerge prospects for political stabilization (Chechnya, Palestine,
Kashmir, Ulster).

These factors suggest the following conclusions concerning
Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. First, when a state really
implements force against terrorism, the latter may be successfully
suppressed (as was the case in Afghanistan before the reckless
operation against Iraq was launched). However, if there are no
terrorists in the area of conflict, and if the popular slogan of
combating terrorism is simply employed as a means to achieve other
purposes, then terrorism raises its head and enters the conflict
zone just as an infection attacks an open wound.

Worse, using the banner of combating terrorism to achieve other
goals (even quite good and lawful) inevitably discredits the true
strategy of countering terrorism, disunites the international
antiterrorist coalition, undermines practical efforts in this
field, and destroys the unity of society in individual

In Chechnya, the original goal was not combating terrorism, but
putting an end to militant ethnic separatism – and a large-scale
military campaign was not the best method for solving that problem
(as the first catastrophic operation of 1994-1996 showed). In Iraq,
the military operation was aimed at overthrowing the hated Saddam
regime and obtaining access to Iraqi oil. In both cases, terrorism
later emerged in the social environment destabilized by war as a
secondary phenomenon and expanded in keeping with the law of a
‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’

Second, it would be wrong to name a peaceful settlement of
conflicts as a condition for the cessation of terrorism. Of course,
conflicts must be stopped because they are not only a nutrient
medium for terrorism, but are also a source of many other
misfortunes. One must bear in mind, however, that a peaceful
settlement per se no longer guarantees the cessation of terrorism.
It is an essential, but not the only condition, for combating
terrorism. This is because terrorism can simply “flow” into another
conflict or provoke it. Furthermore, terrorists will make every
effort to thwart any peace process, thus, peace will hardly be
achieved without the most resolute measures to suppress terrorist
organizations and their accomplices.

Third, taking into account the global nature of terrorism, the
war against it will be successful only if it is waged on a
multilateral, international basis. To this end, countries must give
up, once and for all, the practice of applying double standards: no
goals, even the noblest ones, can justify terrorist methods. No
rights of nations or religions can be recognized if terrorist
outrages are committed in their name. No geopolitical or economic
interests can justify any connivance at terrorism. It is not
permissible to hunt for al Qaeda activists around the world and
simultaneously provide political asylum to the leaders of Chechen
militants. Or denounce Chechen terrorism and justify Palestinian or
Iraqi terrorism. Or accuse Syria of assisting Palestinian
terrorists and, at the same time, shut one’s eyes to Pakistan’s
connivance at the Talibs, who have survived the operation in
Afghanistan, or at Kashmir terrorists.

The civilized world has all the required material and
intellectual resources and capabilities to successfully combat
terrorism. Yet, so far it has been lacking the most important
components: unity, mutual confidence, and a readiness to give up
double standards and sacrifice secondary political and economic
interests for the main common goal.