Winning a War While Not Losing the Peace

8 february 2005

Alexei Arbatov is 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).

Resume: 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, 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.

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 sight.

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 deadlock.

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 nightmare.

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 acts.


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 dialog.


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 terrorists.

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 imperfect.

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 record.
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 efforts.


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 PR-infrastructure.

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 countries.

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.

Last updated 8 february 2005, 17:33

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