Maybe Russia needs a truth commission

I don’t link to this Times of London article as a justification of other interrogation procedures, or as a condemnation of them.  However, after reading this, one understands why Russia defended Slobodan Milosevic for so long, and also how Russia managed to maintain an empire under varying political guises for centuries.  Former Russian interrogators told the Times some of their exploits in fighting Chechen terrorists, and it’s not pretty — on either side:

The men, decorated veterans of more than 40 tours of duty in Chechnya, said not only suspected rebels but also people close to them were systematically tracked, abducted, tortured and killed. Intelligence was often extracted by breaking their limbs with a hammer, administering electric shocks and forcing men to perform sexual acts on each other. The bodies were either buried in unmarked pits or pulverised.

Far from being the work of a few ruthless mavericks, such methods were widely used among special forces, the men said. They were backed by their superiors on the understanding that operations were to be carried out covertly and that any officers who were caught risked prosecution: the Russian government publicly condemns torture and extrajudicial killings and denies that its army committed war crimes in Chechnya. …

Andrei, who was badly wounded in the war, said he took part in the killing of at least 10 alleged female suicide bombers. In a separate incident he had a wounded female sniper tied up and ordered a tank to drive over her.

He also participated in one of the most brutal revenge sprees by Russian forces. Following the 2002 killings of two agents from the FSB security service and two soldiers from Russia’s equivalent of the SAS, the troops hunted down 200 Chechens said to be linked to the attacks.

In another operation, Andrei’s unit stumbled across dozens of wounded fighters in a cellar being used as a field hospital. Some were being tended by female relatives. “The fighters who were well enough to be interrogated were taken away. We executed the others, together with some of the women,” he recalled. “That’s the only way to deal with terrorists.”

This conflict differs significantly from the one the US has waged in Af-Pak and Iraq since 2001.  We’re not acquiring land (despite the theories of the paranoid), and we’re not looking to eliminate self-determination.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we want self-determination, but a realistic, holistic self-determination legitimized by free elections and secret ballots, and not the rule of the strongest, such as with Saddam Hussein.  The Russians want Chechnya to remain in their federation and were willing to kill as many Chechens as necessary to get that result, and the Chechens were just as willing to kill as many Russians as possible to establish an Islamist terrorist state along the lines of the Taliban, at least later in the conflict as it moved from a nationalist to an Islamist enterprise.  Good guys were not in abundance in this conflict.

The Times article never mentions reciprocity explicitly, but it’s an important part of this story — and an important part of human conflict, regardless of whether we like it.  This shows both the pitfalls and the purpose of reciprocity.  The Russians, to a man, say that the terrorists only understand the kind of atrocities they themselves dish out, and the only way to quell a terrorist group is to kill them all and to use the exact same methods they use to do it.  Obviously, it worked; Chechnya has been pacified.  However, the reciprocity created its own dynamic of revenge, which made it more difficult to isolate the terrorists and avoid recruitment.

Reciprocity has played a role in every war, at least until recently.  In World War II, Britain began bombing German cities after Germany started the Blitz, although Germany claims it was provoked by Britain.  In World War I, everyone started using chemical warfare in order to break the stalemate.  Each side claims a moral superiority, but it’s usually the losers who pay the price.

What does this tell us about our own conflict?  Perhaps not much.  After all, our own statutes still outlaw mock executions as torture, and even Jay Bybee admitted that waterboarding qualified as long as the subjects didn’t know that they would be saved from real physical harm.  On the other hand, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that the inmates at Gitmo have to be happy they were sent to fight in Pakistan and Afghanistan instead of Chechnya by the radical Islamist terrorist networks who employed them.