Recent developments in Pakistan’s Swat valley have demonstrated how a government’s policy of non-negotiation with those they term ‘terrorists’ can quickly come asunder in the face of overlapping political, socio-economic and military challenges. Given the comparable challenges it faces in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s leadership has likely been closely monitoring the Pakistani government’s somewhat unorthodox efforts to quell the Swat insurgency. For the Sharia-based administrative entity that emerged, however briefly, in Swat closely resembles the type of state Doku Umarov and his followers would happily establish in the North Caucasus if given the chance.
BACKGROUND: During a recent interview he gave to a leading rebel website, Supyan Abdullayev, a leading ideologue and strategist of the Caucasus Emirate project, made some interesting observations regarding the nature of the rebels’ campaign against Russian rule in the region. Abdullayev has been a champion of the merits of Sharia law for over two decades and has dedicated his political career to the realization of Islamic law in Chechnya, and later throughout the entire North Caucasus. As Doku Umarov’s chief naib, or lieutenant, Abdullayev is in line to replace the Emir should something untoward befall him. This fact lends considerable weight to Abdullayev’s political opinions, although it bears mentioning that these opinions are seldom, if ever, substantively different from those of other leading rebel ideologues, such as Abdullayev’s long-time political collaborator, Movladi Udugov. Abdullayev’s categorisation of the rebels’ ongoing attempts to implement Sharia law in the region was particularly interesting. ‘We establish the Sharia on the territory we control,’ he explained. Acknowledging the transient nature of the control the rebels can currently exercise over any given geographical space in the North Caucasus, Abdullayev deftly qualified his earlier assertion with a military truism: ‘Control is always relative in war.’ Certainly this is so in the case of the North Caucasus. While one cannot state that the Caucasus rebels are currently in secure possession of any significant parcel of territory in the region, there have been numerous cases in recent years of rebel detachments seizing control of urban centres for several hours, during which they invoke Sharia law as a pretext for executing alleged collaborators with the local pro-Russian administration. For many years now, this particular tactic has been utilized frequently, if irregularly, by rebels operating in Chechnya. By way of example, one might cite the rebel takeover of Alkhazurovo in Chechnya’s Urus-Martan district in March 2008 when a sizable party of rebels entered the village, set fire to the local administrative headquarters and executed at least five government employees. The insurgents remained in control of the village for approximately three hours before finally deeming it expedient to take their leave. In this instance control was indeed relative – the rebels’ control over Alkhazurovo was relative to the period of time they estimated it would take nearby pro-Russian forces to mobilize and respond to their takeover of the village. Interestingly, reports of this takeover, and others, carry no mention of the rebels’ overtly proselytising on the socio-economic utility of Sharia law. The object of such takeovers is to terrify local magistrates, administrative clerks, policemen, indeed anyone associated directly, or by association, with the local pro-Moscow administration. The Taliban-affiliated militants of the Swat valley placed an identical emphasis on intimidating functionaries of the ruling regime, beheading policemen en masse and assassinating government officials. As the Caucasus rebels are aware, the Swat militants forced the Pakistani government to the negotiating table by steadily reducing the relativity of their own control over Swat to the point where, by early 2009, Taliban control over the region had become an objective reality.
IMPLICATIONS: Despite the government’s deployment of 12,000 troops to the region, the Taliban successfully organized what a recent Amnesty International report described as ‘a parallel justice system.’ This system, which earned a reputation among some Swat residents for the dispensation of ‘speedy and easy justice,’ contrasted favourably with the pre-existing, constitutionally mandated system, widely detested for its innate corruption and inertia. This shadow system of justice was officially recognised and mandated by the Pakistani government in February when it agreed a peace deal with Taliban representatives, effectively clearing the way for the imposition of Sharia law in Swat. It is interesting that the insurgents did not demand that Islamabad recognise Swat as an independent, sovereign Islamic nation-state. Instead, they seemed content with securing authority over the mechanism of legal recourse in Swat, indicating that the realization of Sharia law is their principal political objective.
The leaders of the Caucasus Emirate are in full agreement with this strategic emphasis. Public statements by Umarov, Abdullayev and their colleagues unfailingly reference the imperative of introducing Islamic law in the North Caucasus. By contrast, rebel representatives have received questions about the presumed geographical dimensions of the Caucasus Emirate with indifference and ambiguity. Unlike contemporary statesmen in Russia and the West, the leaders of the Emirate do not consider themselves encumbered by the legacy of Westphalia (it is generally accepted that the Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, marked the reification of the nation-state as the principle actor in international relations). In their view, the writ of the Sharia (Allah’s law) cannot be curtailed by temporal, man-made phenomena such as national boundaries, or indeed any other sort of earthly jurisdictional demarcation.
But faith in the metaphysical properties of the Sharia is not the only reason the Caucasus rebels refuse to define their territorial ambitions. There are also tactical considerations behind this reticence. While there are indications that the rebels may be willing to settle for a smaller parcel of territory than the entire North Caucasus, it is in their interest to conceal this inclination from possible Russian interlocutors; for in any set of negotiations, it is wise to begin by demanding considerably more of the opposing party than one may in fact require. It is also possible that the Emirate’s leadership might at some point deem it expedient to conclude a short-term arrangement with the Russians on purely tactical grounds, temporarily accepting confinement to a defined geographical area in the interests of regrouping, or for use as an operational launching pad from which they might influence neighbouring, Russian-administered territories. In any case, it can be stated categorically that the acquisition of territory per se is not an objective goal for the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate. In their view, the utility of territorial gain is absolutely relative to the viability of implementing Sharia law in the acquired territory.
CONCLUSIONS: The likelihood of the North Caucasus becoming another Swat in the near future appears remote. For one thing, the Pakistani government’s break with neo-Westphalian perceptions of statecraft by granting Swat an unparalleled and unconstitutional – albeit short-lived – level of autonomy under Taliban rule is presently a quite unthinkable course of action for leading decision-makers in Moscow. While Pakistan’s President Zardari may see the logic in selectively striking tactical bargains with insurgents, such recourse represents the height of folly to the majority of political and military observers in Moscow and Washington. There is also the fact that the variant of ‘control’ exercised by the rebels in the North Caucasus remains relative (as explained above) and does not appear – except perhaps in the case of Ingushetia – close to becoming an objective reality. Nevertheless, the Caucasus rebels will persist in their efforts to reduce the relativity of their control in the region, all the while eschewing the conventional, neo-Westphalian precepts underpinning the conduct of international relations.AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.