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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

To know one's enemy

CNN reported today that ABC is being punished by the Russian government for last week’s interview with Chechen Warlord Shamil Basayev. This does not surprise me as we too have taken flak for our films on Chechnya and Shamil Basayev. Many people feel that even showing the enemy, giving him a voice, is a bad thing. However, only by understanding the position of all parties, can one make more informed decisions relating to that enemy.

For those dedicated to destroying the enemy, the more one knows about his enemy the easier it should be to defeat him. Knowing how a particular leader thinks, plans his actions, who is under his command, knowledge of the territory, and anything else one can think of, can pay off dramatically on the battlefield—hence every military’s emphasis on accurate and timely intelligence.

But knowing one’s enemy can also lead to multiple options beyond conflict. A true understanding might lead to the conclusion that there may be some common ground with which to build a framework for a relationship short of war. For example, on-going relations with North Korea, punctuated by last week’s six-party talks in Beijing, make it obvious that not enough is known about the workings of the senior leadership of North Korea and the country’s strategic capabilities (although I am sure it is among the most spied on countries in the world—at least from above). A greater understanding of any aspect of the leadership, chain of command, military ethos, anything, would pay off as the west continues to negotiate with this tightly controlled and closed regime over its nuclear program.

Back to Chechnya, I remember talking to a Russian academic about Chechnya and he said it was pure arrogance that the Russian military didn’t really try to understand the Chechen defenders of Grozny in the winter of 1994-1995. Among other tactical oversights, there were no Chechen linguists in the Russian columns that penetrated Grozny in the disastrous New Years Eve assault. But plenty of Chechens spoke Russian and utilized this language skill over the radio to redirect, misdirect and confuse Russian units.

Of course there are countless factors that weigh on every decision made, and too much blood has been spilt in Chechnya and surrounding Russian territories, on both sides, for any likely reproach from war. However, you can be sure that Russian defense officials watched the Shamil interview on ABC with great interest. After all, it is difficult to get that many up close and personal looks at one’s enemy.

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