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Surrealpolitik

Bandits and kidnappers seemed to be running the place, and basic services such as water and electricity had been obliterated. "One of the biggest problems of war is what to do with the combatants afterward," said Akhmadov. "Basayev was too popular to be left out of the new government."

Because there were virtually no state institutions, it fell on the former commanders to care for their former soldiers. Basayev doled out money for medicine and food that he received from rich Chechens abroad. Apparently, his welfare net extended to playing matchmaker, Akhmadov recalled. "Basayev said we all needed to get married and have children to replace the dead." Akhmadov balked at the idea of starting a family in such unstable times. But Basayev was adamant, and Chechnya had a long tradition of arranged marriages. "He told me I had three weeks to find a wife, or he'd find one for me." An introduction was arranged, and Akhmadov wed Malika, a young dark-haired relative of one of Basayev's best fighters. Though they were from different clans -- Akhmadov is descended from mountain dwellers; Malika's people are from the plains -- the two hit it off. As a wedding gift, Basayev helped find the couple an apartment that had not been bombed out. For a while, Akhmadov continued to work for Basayev, answering his correspondence at the prime minister's office. "He would get letters from all over Russia: retirees begging him to interfere on their behalf so that they could get their pensions on time; soldiers wanting to join him; even some of his former hostages wrote," asking him to return to Budyonnovsk to set the town's corrupt mayor straight.

Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov might look like a Washington wonk, but he's among Russia's most wanted fugitives. (Greg Miller)

All the while, though, Akhmadov said, Basayev was continuing to change. "He was increasingly closed as a person, and distrustful. He used to have a good sense of humor. I remember once during the war, he tried to arrange a [soccer] match with a senior Rus-sian officer. 'If my men win,' he said, 'you give us sniper scopes and ammunition.' 'What do I get if we win?' asked the Russian. 'You get to go home alive,' answered Basayev."

But the bravado that had once marked Basayev as such a charismatic leader was no longer on display. He began to withdraw from the public, quit smoking and cut out coffee. "He started reading all these religious texts," Akhmadov said. Basayev's Islamic conversion was noted by others as well. A predecessor of Akhmadov's as foreign minister, Shamil Beno, also a close friend of Basayev's, told a Post reporter: "He started moving from freedom for Chechnya to freedom for the whole Arab world. He changed from a Chechen patriot into an Islamic globalist."

Soon, said Akhmadov, Basayev was spouting Islamic slogans, teaching himself to read Arabic and praying five times a day. He began to break with Maskhadov on fundamental issues, such as continuing negotiations with Moscow, and claimed he was now receiving guidance from a higher authority. "In council debates Basayev started quoting the Koran, becoming very dogmatic." He had taken a new name and honorific, Abdullah Shamil Abu Idris, amir of the Rijalis-Salichin diversionary regiment of the Chechen shahids, or martyrs.

It was a bit much for Akhmadov, and the two quietly parted ways. There was no blowout or dramatic scene; Akhmadov simply went to work at the nascent Chechen foreign ministry while Basayev resigned from the government. But if Basayev was distancing himself from the mainstream Chechen leadership (and vice versa), he was not entirely retreating from public view. In 1999, he and Amir Khattab, a Saudi holy warrior and veteran of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps, launched a high-profile incursion into neighboring Russian Dagestan to try to topple the secular authorities there. Moscow reacted with predictable fury at the botched attempt to spread an Islamic revolt in the greater Caucasus. Soon afterward, a rash of mysterious apartment bombings rocked Russia. Putin, a former KGB officer whom Yeltsin had made head of domestic intelligence and his anointed successor, quickly pinned the blame on Chechen extremists and began mobilizing for war.

The war drums were already beating when Akhmadov says he last saw Basayev, in late 1999. It was a chance encounter on the street, and Akhmadov, who was foreign minister by then, barely recognized his old comrade in arms. "He was a different person; he had a strange, glassy look in his eye. 'Well,' he told me. 'I guess you are going to have your work cut out for you.'"

Akhmadov, however, was in no mood for jokes and adopted a more confrontational tone with his former mentor. "I asked Basayev point-blank if he knew anything about the apartment bombings," Akhmadov recalled, "and he swore that he did not." But Russian tanks were already underway. This time, Putin vowed, there would be no quarter given, no humiliating retreat.

AS WE SAT AT THE IRISH PUB, Akhmadov's cell phone rang with maddening regularity. For someone who had been in Washington for only a short time, he certainly seemed popular -- or at least in demand. The phone, like the loaner apartment, the three suits he owned, his legal defense and the funds he has lived on for the past five years, was a gift from well-wishers, many of whom display an almost maternal zeal to shelter and protect him. Some of Akhmadov's backers initially may have adopted his cause for political reasons, but most seem to have grown quite fond of him in the process. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that one of the happiest days of my life was when I called Ilyas to tell him that he would be able to stay in America," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, for the record, is my uncle, and is not someone prone to excessive flights of emotion. (While I was unaware of my uncle's involvement with Akhmadov until after I began reporting this article, sharing a last name with him did raise hackles at the Russian Embassy as to my objectivity.)

What would happen, I asked Akhmadov between calls on his cell, if the United States ever relented to Russia's requests for extradition? "You'd read that I hanged myself in jail or had a heart attack," he answered, running a finger over his throat in a slashing motion. For a moment we sat silently, contemplating this unhappy scenario. Akhmadov's face brightened, though, as soon as his cell phone chirped. It was Malika, calling from Sweden. She lives there thanks to the personal intervention of Ruud Lubbers, who, as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, arranged for her to get out of hiding in Azerbaijan, and later for Akhmadov's youngest son, Cherse, to undergo surgery for a skeletal deformity commonly known as clubfoot. "That's been the hardest part," said Akhmadov. "Being apart from my family." He has yet to meet 2-year-old Cherse, who like his two older brothers, Orz and Borz, now speaks Swedish. "I'm just a strange voice on the telephone to him," Akhmadov sighed. "Increasingly, that's the case for my other boys as well."

The long-distance relationship will likely continue. Despite efforts of influential supporters such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), it could take years for the red tape to clear on Malika's application to be reunited with Akhmadov. "His courageous statements have subjected him and his family to persecution and reprisals," Kennedy petitioned Ridge in 2003. "Denying refugee status leaves them all vulnerable to harm."

For now, Akhmadov cannot risk traveling to Sweden to see Malika and his sons, because he would almost certainly be arrested. (The United States has no extradition treaty with Russia as a consequence of the Cold War, but Sweden and other European nations do. So, Moscow could legally demand he be handed over.) Still, Akhmadov counts himself lucky that his kids are safely out of the Russians' reach. "Forty thousand children have died in Chechnya," he said. "The Russians have a policy to kill every male."

Russia vehemently denies this charge, and officials in Moscow say Chechen insurgents are every bit as ruthless as Russian forces are accused of being. Independent watchdog groups have found human rights abuses and atrocities by both sides -- including Chechen strikes against such Russian civilian targets as a packed Moscow theater, the Moscow subway and passenger airplanes. But the fact that the war has been fought amid a civilian population in Chechnya has guaranteed that the suffering has been distributed unequally. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Russian forces often make little distinction between civilians and combatants when encountering men of fighting age. "A significant percentage of the male population between the ages of 15 and 65 has been liquidated," notes U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, who has also written testimonials vouching for Akhmadov.

While no one knows precisely how many people have died in Chechnya as a result of the war over the past decade -- estimates range from the tens of thousands to several hundred thousand, depending on whom you ask -- there is a consensus that the conflict has became far more lethal under Putin's leadership. "At this point, it's basically a war of ethnic survival for the Chechen people," says S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, a longtime observer of the region who is one of the foremost authorities on Chechnya in Washington. "They've probably lost a quarter of the population."

That much of this suffering has occurred with minimal comment from the Bush administration has inflamed passions in some corners of Washington. "This is a black mark on the administration's record of human rights," says Odom. "Our present policy gives Russia license to be even more brutal toward the Chechens."

The policy to which Odom refers stems from a strategic partnership the White House struck with the Kremlin in the months following 9/11. Under the agreement, Moscow would permit the United States to deploy military forces within its sphere of influence, in former dominions such as Uzbekistan -- which borders Afghanistan -- and Georgia, to stage counterterror operations. In exchange, say observers such as Starr and Holbrooke, Washington agreed to include Chechen extremists on its global terrorist blacklist, effectively allowing Russia to do whatever it pleased in the breakaway province.

Alexander Haig acknowledged the primacy of the strategic partnership while lobbying on Akhmadov's behalf. "I certainly understand the benefits of the new relationship with President Putin," he wrote to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in late 2002. "Nevertheless there could be no justification for permitting these benefits to overshadow our fundamental obligation to provide sanctuary to Mr. Akhmadov."


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