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A Tale Of Two Wars

A hint: It's not Kabul
(This time around we offer you a guest post by our friend James Brooke, who reports for Voice of America from Moscow. You can see his original piece here.)

Oddly, the death tolls in both wars stand at 440.

In Afghanistan, 440 American soldiers were killed by hostile action last year.

In Russia’s Caucasus, 440 Russian police and soldiers were killed by Islamic insurgents last year.

The death of Osama bin Laden has many Americans thinking: let’s declare victory, crank up the brass bands, and get out of Afghanistan.

The billions of taxpayer dollars for nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be far better spent at home, some think, rebuilding America’s rust belt regions. And, on Nov. 6, 2012, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be voting in American elections for president and congress.

Here, much closer to Afghanistan-Pakistan, positioning for a post-America Afghanistan is already getting started.

It was maybe a coincidence, but just a few hours after President Obama announced the death of bin Laden, Moscow announced the appointment of a Russian heavyweight to co-chair a Russia-Afghan trade and aid commission. The leader of the Russian side will be Sergei Shmatko, minister of energy and arguably the most powerful cabinet member for Russia, the world’s largest oil and gas producer. Russia has plans to run gas pipelines and electric power lines through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Back to the 440 dead in the Caucasus.

Russia cannot declare victory and go home.

For the last 150 years, the Caucasus have been part of the Russian homeland.

The death of bin Laden, may speed up thinking that, in the age of the Arab Spring, the Saudi outlaw was yesterday’s man and that his suicide bombings were yesterday’s perversion of a great religion.

But 20 years after the breakdown of pax sovietica, the rag tag rebellion on Russia’s southern fringe persistently bubbles in a deadly stew. Ingredients include:

- A profound sense of ethnic, religious, and regional alienation from Russia’s Slavic, Christian core;

- Age-old, Sicilian-style vendettas between mountain families and clans;

- Lunges by ambitious men to get a slice of the billions of rubles that Moscow pumps yearly into the region.

What young man is going to be happy herding sheep, if he dreams of earning $30,000 a year working as the fourth bodyguard for Chechnya’s deputy minister of postage stamps?

Google “Kadyrov cars” or “Kadyrov palaces” and you’ll get a Technicolor picture of the action flowing the way of Chechnya’s 34-year-old playboy prince, Ramzan Kadyrov.

People are starting to grumble in Moscow.

“Stop Feeding the Caucasus!” was the rallying cry at a nationalist demonstration on a recent sunny Saturday in Moscow. Addressing 500 protestors — largely young men in black jackets — one speaker shouted: “We spend too much money and too much blood on the Caucasus.”

Russian nationalists now talk openly of cutting off the four majority Muslim republics on Russia’s southern edge – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino Balkaria. Let them eat independence, they cry.

Dream on.

The people who run Russia face (their own kind) of elections this December and next March. With Russian oil selling for 50 percent over last year’s prices, the Kremlin can easily afford to keep irrigating the Caucasus with billions of rubles. Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Putin announced the launching this year of 37 development projects for the Caucasus. The price tag: $15 billion, about $2,000 per inhabitant.

So while the Washington can start quietly cutting the American blood and treasure spent on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Russian taxpayers are condemned to keep spending, and Russian soldiers, police and civilians are condemned to keep dying.

According to Caucasian Knot, a regional website, 211 people — a mix of soldiers, civilians and rebels — were killed due to armed conflict in the Caucasus during the first three months of this year. For Russian security forces in the Caucasus, their 2011 death toll could be on its way back to 440.

- James Brooke

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