War Without Remedy

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

THE WORSENING violence in Iraq and Afghanistan this summer has, at least, been accompanied by vigorous attempts at political solutions. In Iraq, majority Shiites, pressed by the United States, are negotiating with minority Sunnis about the country's future political structure; although talks over the constitution failed, the contacts are likely to continue even as an upcoming referendum provides a democratic outlet. Afghanistan's parliamentary election campaign proceeds despite attacks from extremists, and some former members of the Taliban have chosen to compete rather than fight.

That leaves one major area of the Muslim world where political violence and terrorism is growing, groups linked to al Qaeda are taking root, and no prospect for political accord exists: the north Caucasus, where Chechnya and six other republics chafe under corrupt and increasingly brutal Russian rule. Though mostly unnoticed by the outside world, violence in the region has been escalating in recent weeks. Last week the prime minister of one republic, Ingushetia, was wounded in an assassination attempt, and a bombing derailed a train in Dagestan. In Chechnya near-daily clashes continue between Russian troops and insurgents; one ambush and bombing of a police vehicle several weeks ago killed 15.

Russian and independent experts across the Caucasus are warning of the eruption of a major new war that, unlike the two fought in Chechnya during the past 11 years, would spread across the region and be waged more explicitly in the name of Islam. Aslan Maskhadov, the secular Chechen leader who sought only his republic's independence and won a democratic election for president, was killed by Russian forces in March; his successor, Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, a Muslim cleric, has announced a strategy of expanding the war throughout the Caucasus. Last week he named as his deputy Shamil Basayev, the terrorist who has led a number of murderous attacks on Russian civilians, including the siege of a school a year ago this week in Beslan, North Ossetia, that killed 331 people, including 186 children.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had the temerity to call for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq this month, has responded to the violence by pouring more troops into the Caucasus republics. Gross abuses by Russian forces, including indiscriminate killings and abductions, have spread from Chechnya to other republics. As he has for the past six years, Mr. Putin rejects all suggestions of negotiations or mediation. Foreign observers are mostly excluded from the region, and independent reporting by Russian media is stifled. Occasional elections in Chechnya and its neighbors are grossly one-sided affairs in which no serious challenge to the Kremlin's handpicked candidates is allowed.

The Bush administration's political strategy in Iraq can certainly be faulted, but at least the administration recognizes that there can be no end to the violence without political settlements that allow for representative government and the protection of minorities and human rights. Mr. Putin's refusal to acknowledge that reality in the Caucasus is increasingly dangerous not only for Russia but also for the broader struggle against Islamic extremism. The United States and other democracies allow this war-without-quarter to escalate at their own peril.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company