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Friday, July 15, 2005

Chechnya revisited

I was glad to see that National Geographic is running a piece on Chechnya this month. Chechnya, as brutal as it has been, falls off the public radar unless prompted by events like the Beslan school massacre (Chechnya: Separatism or Jihad). However, tens of thousands of people on both sides of the conflict, which has remained more or less ongoing since 1994, have been killed, injured, displaced, kidnapped, or come up just plain missing.

Of all my travels, Chechnya was by far the scariest--and I was there during the "peaceful" interwar years 1997-1998. At the time, my cameraman and I were staying with Shamil Basayev and his guys in the Vedeno Rayon. We were moved every night from location to location, and had two body guards assigned to us 24/7. We usually slept on a big bed, us in the middle, guards on the outside, AKs and PKM on the floor--fully dressed but shoes on the floor--ready for quick reaction if necessary. From what I wasn't sure.

I remember one morning waking up in the village of Tousand and, anxious to get outside and take a look around, went up the hill from the village to watch some children sledding over abandoned Russian positions. I was out about an hour when Ruslan, one of our body guards, came up the hill and chewed me out. Salembek, another guard, told me that it was their job to protect us and if we were killed or kidnapped while in their care, Salembek claimed Shamil would kill them for failing their duty. It greatly clarified the situation for me. We were moved every night--not for fear of the Russians but other Chechens.

Shamil was perhaps the baddest of the Chechens and respect for him was immense in Chechnya at the time. I couldn't imagine any other rival group messing with Shamil's guys. In fact, there were a couple of times that we were stopped by other armed Chechens and when they saw we were with Shamil's soldiers we were not hassled in any way.

Rival clans and armed units are, of course, just a fraction of the instability in Chechnya.

Here is that Nat Geo link: (http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0507/feature4/index.html)

Dodge Billingsley

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The downing of an MH-47 helicopter by small arms fire earlier this month over Afghanistan was a tragic and significant blow to the Special Operations community. It was also expensive. When you consider that an MH-47 can cost between 14 to 40 million dollars, depending on the model and configuration, and that an RPG costs basically nothing in that part of the world, the bang for the buck was significant.

In 1994 I was in Sukhumi Abkhazia (western Republic of Georgia) and an Abkhaz militiaman tried to sell me an RPG-7 launcher for $100 and some warheads for $20 a piece (I was actually trying to buy an Abkhaz flag). I was subsequently told by other soldiers in Sukhumi that the price was to high. I have no idea what an RPG currently costs in Afghanistan but I am sure it is comparable.

And these "low-tech" weapons remain a risk everywhere to helos and other warfighting platforms. Three years ago on D-Day, Operation Anaconda, I was on a CH-47 trying to get off the tarmac at Bagram in the second lift. As we were sitting there waiting for the order to spool up, someone from the TOC ran up to the CH-47 I was on and gave us the quick sitrep, said good luck, and ran to the next helo to give them similar word. There was silence amongst the troops on board as he described the treacherous situation we would be dropping into. Basically, there was no close air support. All five AH-64 Apache helicopters providing overwatch for the CH-47s were shot up and rendered inoperative by enemy small arms fire, again AKs and RPGs. We never got off the ground. I think the command knew our chances of being safely inserted into the valley were slim to none considering that anti-Coalition forces were now engaging the infantry already on the ground. Gun camera footage from CPT Herman's Apache show dozens for RPGs streaking through the frame on each pass to strike enemy positions below.

Eventually that day, two additional Apaches staged at the FARP, one from Bagram and one from Kandahar, to provide close air support for the troops from that first lift--fighting it out on the ground below.

Dodge Billingsley

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Oil Wars: Cnooc and Unocal

All the flak about Cnooc's bid for U.S. owned Unocal Corp. is interesting. To what degree is the U.S government going to get involved is the question. It seems that if the government is going to step in on this issue, it might consider a more comprehensive energy policy regulating the oil industry similar to the defense industry. It is obvious that certain businesses are considered strategic such as weapon systems--and oil. Recent U.S. efforts to develop additional oil sources from places like the Caspian Sea basin (see Fault Lines and Pipelines) underline the effort to secure oil for the future in the face of an unstable Middle East, South America and other politically dodgy places, and a diminishing supply of known reserves. This is not to say that allowing the Cnooc deal to go through would be bad, but rather it will be interesting to watch events unfold as China becomes an economic power house requiring ever larger portions of the global oil reserve. The Unocal deal could be a significant volley in the emerging tug of war for natural resources between China and the west.