WHY would a group of leading American neo-conservatives, dedicated to fighting Islamic terror, have climbed into bed with Chechen rebels linked to al-Qaeda? The American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), which includes Pentagon supremo Richard Perle, says the conflict between Russia and Chechnya is about Chechen nationalism, not terrorism.
The ACPC savaged Russia for the atrocities its forces have committed in the Caucuses, said President Vladimir Putin was "ridiculous", claimed Russia was more "morally" to blame for the bloodshed than Chechen separatists and played down links between al-Qaeda and the "Chechen resistance".
The ACPC's support for the Chechen cause seems bizarre, as many of its members are among the most outspoken US policymakers who have made it clear that Islamist terror must be wiped out. But the organisation has tried to broker peace talks between Russia and Chechen separatists.
The ACPC includes many leaders of the neo-conservative think-tank, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which advocates American domination of the world.
ACPC members who are also in the pro-Israeli PNAC include Elliott Abrams, head of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council; Elliot Cohen of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board; Frank Gaffney, president of the conservative Centre for Security Policy; Robert Kagan and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, the house journal of Washington neo-cons, and former CIA director James Woolsey. Former Reagan defence secretary Caspar Weinberger is also in the ACPC.
ACPC executive director Glen Howard said the continuation of the "brutalising tactics" of Russian forces would only lead to "the resistance employing more brutal tactics" like the assault on School Number One in Beslan. He claimed one of the so-called "Black Widows" decided to become a suicide bomber after being forced to watch Russian troops "boil her three-year-old child alive".
"This is a very brutal war," he said. "There have been knocks in the night, people have disappeared. It's an endless cycle of violence in which everyone has lost their sanity. It is not surprising the Chechens have resorted to the same level of violence."
Howard said Putin comparing Osama bin Laden to the leaders of the Chechen resistance was "ridiculous". Moscow has put a $10 million bounty on the heads of two Chechen leaders - the extremist and al-Qaeda connected commander Shamil Basayev, and the more moderate, one-time democratically elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Basayev, according to the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, directed the hostage-taking raid in Beslan. As a young Islamist extremist Basayev was trained in Jihadist tactics by fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Many Chechens have fought in Afghanistan and many fundamentalist Arabs have fought in Chechnya.
The nurturing of Chechen fighters against Russia recalls America's support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan - an act that went on to spawn al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
"What would have happened if Bosnia had been ignored five years ago by the rest of the world in the way Chechnya has been ignored?" asked Howard. "They might have taken to taking over schools as well.
"Everyone is ignoring the nationalist aspirations of the Chechens. This is not about terrorism but about ethnic nationalism." Howard said Russia was more "morally culpable" than Chechen fighters because of the atrocities its forces have committed.
Howard said hardliners like Richard Perle were backing Chechnya as they "understood what it feels like to be under the Russian yolk". Some critics believe the support for the Chechens may be a cold war hangover or part of a policy to keep Russia weak through bloodletting in the Caucuses.
"The al-Qaeda link [to the Chechen conflict] is overstated," said Howard. "Russia plays that up to show that it is part of the war on terror. There are some Arabs there but only a handful - this is a 400-year national struggle between the Russians and the Chechens."
According to Howard, due to the vast energy resources in the Caucuses, the West, which is heavily dependent on foreign energy, has strategic interests in the area to which it cannot afford to turn a blind eye.
Howard said Russia should be told by the West to talk to Chechen leaders to bring about peace. He claimed there was also a "moral case" to invoke sanctions against Russia for its activities in Chechnya, but added that any such attempt would be "totally unrealistic".
© 2004 newsquest (sunday herald) limited