Today in Chechnya, the city of Grozny – formerly the home of almost half a million people - lies in ruins: utterly devastated. The fate of Grozny thus stands as a testament to the brutal and terrible cost of modern urban warfare. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, separatist ambitions previously repressed in the overwhelmingly Muslim republic once again bubbled to the surface to provide the greatest crisis faced by the Russian Federation since that fateful (some would say disastrous) moment.
As the separatist movement rose to challenge the authority of the Kremlin, intense and bloody battles erupted in Chechnya during the period 1994-1996. During this period, and the later conflict, beginning in 1999, it is estimated that over 2,500 Russian troops paid with their lives. Unofficial estimates suggest an even higher price was paid. The price paid by the Chechens themselves was even more onerous: with an estimated 80,000 casualties, and the virtual leveling of habitations and infrastructure. Heating, water, electricity: were all devastated. Guerilla resistance continues to this day, providing an ongoing nightmare for Russian occupation forces, who continue to grapple with regular ambushes.
Like the current war in Iraq, the war in Chechnya also concerned what US commentators like to refer to as ‘resource security’: that is, the control of oil. In the case of Chechnya, at stake was one of the most oil and natural gas rich regions of the former USSR, including refineries and a major oil pipeline. The risk of losing control of this pipeline, in particular, posed a major strategic dilemma for the Kremlin. Whitehouse strategists, however, seem to be far more ambitious than successive Kremlin leaders, apparently aiming for nothing less than domination of the world’s oil supply via the Persian Gulf. Containment of Iran and Syria will prove to be a useful byproduct of this process.
There are important differences, however, between the nightmare confronted by Russian forces, and the ordeal currently facing coalition forces in their attempt to take Baghdad. The Kremlin invaded Chechnya originally with a force of some 45,000 troops: this in an entire region of barely over one million. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/chechnyatime1.html
By comparison, coalition forces in Iraq number over 300,000, but are attempting to subdue a nation of some 22 million. Baghdad itself comprises a sprawling metropolis of over 5 million: a potential nightmare for Coalition troops facing a hostile populous and vicious house to house fighting over a huge urban landscape.
Furthermore, though, while Chechen fighters were able to retreat to neighboring Dagestan to reorganize, one suspects that Syria would not dare provide a base for such a movement in a post-B’aathist Iraq under long term US occupation. Additionally, as compared to the mountainous terrain of Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan: used by rebels as a base from which to continue an ongoing guerilla war, Iraqi forces in the North confront overwhelming Coalition airpower, and the further obstacle of Kurdish forces.
Some military aspects of the two conflicts, however, will seem disturbingly familiar to Coalition commanders. Suicide bombings have been employed in Chechnya, as in Iraq, to devastating effect. In one such period the Kremlin admitted to having lost 37 soldiers to ‘suicide trucks’. Chechen rebels, meanwhile, claimed the figure to be more in the vicinity of 200. http://www.rnw.nl/hotspots/html/chechnya000704.html As Coalition troops penetrate Baghdad in greater numbers and concentration, vulnerability to such attacks will increase exponentially.
And while Baghdad: a city boasting a fairly low and level skyline, does not provide the same ambush opportunities as some cities, this certainly ought not be taken as cause for complacency on the part of the Coalition. Russian armour, for instance, often faced devastating ambushes in the streets of Grozny. Boasting extensive smuggling and organized crime links, Chechen rebels were able to secure potent anti-tank weaponry to wreak havoc upon Russian formations. One Russian soldier recalled the horror of Chechen ambushes on Russian armoured columns in Grozny during the period of the initial invasion:
"According to the well-developed tactics, the first and the last vehicles in the convoy are destroyed first. Then, the rest of the column is methodically eliminated. Reliable tactics. Very few ever escape." http://www.artofwar.ru/english/mironov_eng4.html
Baghdad, also, developed a sprawling worldwide smuggling network with the intent of evading sanctions, and preparing for invasion. Already the Americans are aware of the import of night-vision goggles and anti-tank missiles from a firm in Russia. Who knows, then, what surprises might await Coalition forces in Baghdad? With the Coalition’s technological advantage significantly eroded by the prospect of close urban combat, the Republican Guard’s possession of night-vision goggles alone would present a nightmare for Coalition troops.
Presently, the Coalition is intent on showing its capacity to ‘move in an out’ of Baghdad at will, inflicting devastating casualties upon those units intent on resisting heavy armour with small arms fire alone. In the event that Iraq’s stockpile of Russian anti-tank missiles is minimal, such incursions may continue to meet with success, but imposing a lasting and successful occupation on a sprawling city of 5 million will be a different matter entirely. Eventually, presuming Iraqi forces continue to resist, Coalition forces will be driven from the protection of their heavy armor, and forced to clear neighborhoods house to house.
Aaron Zitner, Elizabeth Shogren and Paul Richter, writing in the ‘Los Angeles Times’, for instance, detail the horror of house to house fighting in Grozny, as Russian troops attempted to clear out Rebel strongholds:
"Russian troops would toss grenades into basements, hoping to kill snipers or other rebels. But the practice would also wipe out entire families at a time."
A similar horror, no doubt, awaits in Baghdad.
Houses and other buildings could also be booby-trapped, making high casualties inevitable in the instance of intense house to house fighting. Such traps were widely employed in Grozny, amidst rubble, and recently vacated buildings. These unconventional fighting tactics turned out to be the bane of the Russian military. If Saddam’s Republican Guard has any sense, such tactics will inevitably take their toll.
While the Russians ultimately resorted to the virtual leveling of Grozny in 2000 to deprive Chechen rebels of cover, or opportunities for ambush, the Coalition will have no such option in Baghdad for the immediate future. This will remain the case at least so long as the city continues to house millions of Iraqi civilians. The fear here is that of a massive public opinion backlash which could send shockwaves through the Arab world.
One possibility discussed amongst some quarters, however, is that of knocking out what remains of Baghdad’s basic civilian infrastructure: water, electricity, sanitation. Presuming sufficient care had been taken to prepare for the flow of refugees, this would free Coalition forces to take for advantage of superior firepower, including total air superiority. In such an instance, we could expect the ancient and beautiful city of Baghdad to be devastated: much in the same way that Grozny was reduced to ruins by Russian airpower and artillery.
No matter what happens, it is unlikely that anything can deter the likes of Bush and Rumsfeld from following this war through to its brutal, hideous conclusion. While anti-American feeling will, no doubt, reach fever pitch throughout the Arab world as any assault on Baghdad unfolds, much of the Western media has proven to be pliant and uncritical in the face of the Pentagon’s orchestrated campaign of spin and propaganda. At home, at least, government strategists "have the information war in the bag." In the US, as elsewhere, dissent will be contained through spin and misinformation, as well as a hysterical appeal to nationalism.
Presuming, however, that Coalition forces are not able to destroy the B’aathist regime’s underground intelligence networks, the end of the conventional war could only be the beginning. Once again, the parallels with the Russian campaign in Chechnya are poignant. Any new client regime could be haunted by the spectre of assassinations, while any US occupation force will live under the cloud of possible Lebanon-style suicide truck-bomb attacks, the likes of which claimed the lives of 241 Marines in 1983. While the scale of the US occupation, it must be noted, will go some way towards reducing this risk, Iraq could become a nightmare which haunts the US for many years to come.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine