Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings by Brian Glyn Williams

Brian Glyn Williams offers an in-depth and engaging account of Chechen history via their regular need to fight those attempting to subdue them and control their land. The accounts begin with Russian incursions into Chechen territories, the opposition raised and its inevitable defeat by a force that can readily engage in prolonged attacks and sieges and can rely on a large pool of manpower against the infinitely smaller number of Chechens and their allies who can, at best, take to the mountains and continue a form of guerrilla warfare that leans on ambushes. This resistance continues in the face of the Russian Revolution and eventually during the Second World War, for numerous reasons, the Chechen people are accused of collaboration and, along with other minorities in and around the Caucasus, are deported wholesale to Central Asia, where tens of thousands die and suffer for the next decade until in the 1950s Khrushchev's administration allows their return (although in truth Khrushchev had little say in the matter as many simply took their belongings and returned home). Then, the eventual break up of the Soviet Union leads to this minor internal Russian region to demand independence and take up the fight against Russian forces when they resist any such move (fearing a domino effect could ensue). After losing too many troops the Russians begin to negotiate with a variety of Chechen personalities and eventually a very precarious calm settles on the region only to be interrupted by a series of bombings within Russia and a renewal of hostilities against Chechnya.

All of the above is what the majority of this text covers, the Boston bombings are given a chapter, the last, and to be honest that chapter is somewhat the least interesting (not the author's fault). The strengths of this book are that you have an academic with a wide knowledge of both the Chechen people and territory and their place within the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation today. Furthermore, he makes a good case for why Chechens and their struggle against Russia should not be conflated with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. At the same time there are some weaknesses readily evident within the pages of this text. First off, there is a distinct bias toward the Chechen side. In part it's understandable but it also translates to at times an omission of the Russian side and at other times a distinct impression that Russians can do no right. The Russian/Soviet side is not represented to the same degree as the Chechens and it also appears that not enough condemnation is being offered for some of the more drastic actions taken by Chechen fighters. Just because they might treat hostages well doesn't mean they're not guilty of perpetrating terrorist acts against civilians. Overall, this is an excellent but at times biased introduction to the history of Chechen resistance and its evolution, especially in the post-Cold War period. It really shows how complex the situation is in and around the Middle East/Central Asia and how we need to have a grasp on the situation there to figure out how best to fight terrorism (international and regional) and avoid creating a worse situation than already exists.

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