Published on Thursday, October 31, 2002 in the Boston Globe
The Never-Ending War on Terror
by William Pfaff
PARIS -- VLADIMIR PUTIN vows to pursue terrorists even beyond Russia's borders, emulating George W. Bush. He is on board for the worldwide fight against terrorism.
An observer can only offer both Presidents Putin and Bush good luck. Terrorism has always been a force in history and society, as well as in the depths of individual human motivation - as Americans have just again been instructed by events in Maryland and Virginia.
It was a fateful mistake for Bush to declare his ''war against terrorism'' after Sept. 11, 2001. It is a war that can't be won. At the same time, it aligned the United States with governments around the world engaged in suppressing nationalist, regional, religious, or ethnic separatism, too often by methods of social and political injustice.
The outrage in a Moscow theater was committed in the cause of Chechen national independence. The attacks in New York and Washington last year were committed by members of an international movement made up of individuals who hate and fear the United States and its influence and who acted for a number of reasons, religion and nationalism prominent among them.
The latter group, allied around Al Qaeda, can with patience eventually be tracked down and contained, if not eliminated; the problem it poses is within the competence of intelligence and police services. However, while it can be bombed out of a headquarters, as in Afghanistan, it is not easily bombed out of organizational existence.
The nationalists and separatists pose a different problem, one theoretically open to political solution, as it concerns the condition in which a nation is allowed to exist.
The claims of the Chechens can be repressed for a long time, at heavy cost to the Chechens as well as to Russian standards of national justice and military morale and efficiency, but those claims will go on being asserted.
The war between the Russians and the Chechens has been going on since 1783, when Catherine the Great proclaimed the Caucasus to be Russia's, and Russian troops began to try to enforce that claim in what until then had been a region of tribal societies and tribal authority. The Chechens and their Ingush minority were her most ferocious opponents.
They fought conquest until 1859, fought Russian occupation until 1917, were an autonomous region and then an autonomous republic under the Bolsheviks, but collaborated with the invading Germans in World War II. Stalin deported many to Central Asia, and they were allowed to return only in 1956, when he was dead.
When Boris Yeltsin in 1991 declared the Soviet Union finished and invited all Russia's subject-peoples ''to claim as much autonomy as they can absorb,'' the Chechen Parliament took him at his word and declared national independence.
It was an independence they failed to handle, allowing instead anarchical conditions in which kidnapping and smuggling gangs and other criminal groups absorbed much of the power available.
This disorder opened the way to Islamist influence. Saudi Arabia was propagating the Wahabi version of Islam in the Caucasus, and the United States was not displeased with the Saudi program, which put another obstacle between Russia and control of the Caucasian oil fields.
The United States also lent support to Georgia, near Chechnya, which has been implicitly threatened by Putin's offer to carry the war beyond Chechnya.
Sept. 11, 2001, gave Putin the opportunity for a smooth countermove against Washington's interest in the Caucasus. He announced that his war against Chechen independence was part of George W. Bush's great war against global terrorism. If, as Bush insists, we are all either for or against terrorism, we all must be against Chechen separatists.
This gave the United States a moral involvement in Russia's bloodiest and potentially most dangerous internal crisis. It widens the war not against ''terrorism'' but against Muslim Chechens identifying the United States as still another of their enemies.
The Bush decision to call America's enemy ''global terrorism'' may have been only a speechwriter's flourish, but it reflected the administration's determination to tie last year's attacks to what already was on their agenda: Saddam Hussein's overthrow and support for Ariel Sharon's repression of the Palestinian national movement.
Adding the Russian war against Chechen independence to the mixture was not on their agenda, but Putin has put it there. How the administration will eventually manage all this is something the US public might worry about as it goes to the polls next week.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company