"I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living," the black-clad Chechen separatist informed the Russian government on videotape. The communication came in October 2002, just days after 40 armed Chechen militants swarmed into a Moscow theater and captured 700 audience members and brought the conflict in Chechnya once more to the attention of the world community. The focus on international terrorist attacks aimed at Western powers has made local conflicts like the one in Chechnya lose their prominence in the international media.
Separatist movements from East Timor to Northern Ireland have plagued both innocent victims and culpable governments with horrific attacks. Even movements with less recent international exposure, like the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the Basque separatists in Spain, have brought pain and suffering to thousands. Independence movements such as these have come to characterize world military conflicts, but the nature of political-military interaction has evolved. As the United States pursues its anti-terrorist campaign, recurrent regional conflicts have lost their salience, but not their virulence.
David and Goliath
As diverse as Sri Lanka, the Russian Caucasus, and northern Spain may be geographically, politically, and ethnically, the current status of their respective separatist movements is remarkably similar. All are characterized by asymmetric warfare. The Russian, Spanish, and Sri Lankan military capabilities dwarf those of their foes, yet in all three instances, the states have yet to make significant progress in resolving or even quelling the conflicts through forceful military action.
The Russian military has been embroiled in Chechnya for decades. After Russian forces invaded in 1994, they were forced to leave--humiliatingly defeated--18 months later. Poorly motivated and facing recurrent ambushes from Chechen guerillas, the Russian troops are greatly demoralized, with 30 to 40 Russian soldiers dying per week. The conflict has displaced between 300,000 and 400,000 people and has claimed thousands of lives. Despite the numerical superiority of the Russian forces over the Chechens, Russia has yet to achieve any real progress.
The situation in Sri Lanka has resulted in similarly horrific consequences, claiming the lives of over 65,000 Sri Lankans. In the wake of recent offensive operations, a Sri Lankan army commander justified the stalemate by naively commenting, "An attacking force always sustains more casualties." The effort to capture the town of Pallai provides an instructive example. In an offensive named "Rod of Fire," the Sri Lankan military attempted to capture this town, strategically located near the important Elephant Pass. Even with the resources of a centralized government, the army suffered hundreds of casualties in comparison to only dozens by the Tamils, who eventually repulsed the attacks. Like Russian soldiers in Chechnya, the Sri Lankan military has had to fight against a well entrenched opposition in domestic territory that has nonetheless proven to be extremely hostile, unfamiliar, and foreign.
The Spanish example provides a similar scenario. Fortunately, the Spanish government has not committed to a serious military involvement in the conflict with the Basque separatists; rather, it has pursued a more covert, intelligence and investigation-based strategy. It is puzzling, however, that the Spanish government must devote even these resources to tackle a separatist movement in a province whose citizens are largely willing to accept Spanish rule. With the power of a well established central government, Spain has attempted to use the Centro Superior de Informacion de la Defense (CESID), the successor to General Franco's military intelligence service, to fight against the Eusakadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Basque homeland and Liberty party. What has resulted is a series of embarrassing losses, like the capture of two CESID agents and the publication of their names in national newspapers. …