Published June 15, 2010
How to explain the mess in Kyrgyzstan to an American audience? As an Irishman, it's only too easy to understand.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was sent out by the Washington Times to try and discover who and what was behind the bloody riots in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities between Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians that had already cost hundreds of lives, I asked my friend, Paul Goble, for advice.
Paul was -- and remains -- the great expert on Soviet nationalities who was then giving his genuine genius to a first Bush administration that never appreciated it. (That's what happens when you're a principled conservative.) His advice was succinct and to the point: "Marty -- Imagine you're still back in Belfast and it will all become clear to you." So I did -- and he was right.
I don't have any formal degrees in what they call these days "crisis management." Such things are always useless anyway. I have something far better -- experience.
Nearly 20 years ago I was on the ground in Azerbaijan. And more than 40 years ago, as a teenager on the streets of my native Belfast in Northern Ireland, I saw my, until then, exceptionally safe and peaceful home city collapse in bloody sectarian conflict. The bloodshed didn't end for another 25 years. No wonder the bloodbaths in Jalalabad and Osh seem like deja vu all over again. Thank you, Yogi Berra.
The first lesson to learn in crisis management on this kind of issue is -- "Nip It in the Bud." It is far preferable to overreact in terms of deploying overwhelming numbers of troops and concentrations of military force in order to preserve order, rather than to react with indecision or aloofness in the early stages of it. The price for such a failure to respond rapidly and vigorously may be decades of sectarian conflict or civil wars that could cost thousands of dead.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia has yet to learn that lesson. He is the Kremlin's mirror image of President Obama. Like The One, Medvedev wants to be loved for himself. He wants to be a kinder, gentler czar. So he turned down the urgent plea from Kyrgyzstan's acting President Roza Otunbayeva on Saturday to send Russian ground troops to end the fighting and restore order. That kind of attitude costs innocent lives. Lots of them.
One suspects that if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was still sitting in the president's chair, he would not have hesitated to accept President Otunbayeva's plea and send in the troops that were needed.
There have been many cases where the rapid deployment of forces in an area at a crucial early point in a sectarian, racial, religious or ethnic conflict have nipped those troubles in the bud and averted what could have been far worse ones.
One such example was the decision by our own great U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, arguably the most heavily armed, experienced and formidable combat unit of its size in the world at that time, to ensure the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Interestingly, today, more than half a century later, Little Rock in particular and Arkansas in general are models of black-white interracial harmony and cooperation.
Another example was in 1970 when Canadian Federal Premier Pierre Trudeau applied the War Measures Act on the French-speaking province of Quebec after Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte was kidnapped and murdered by separatist terrorists of the Front de Liberation de Quebec (FLQ).
Trudeau was widely criticized at the time for overreacting, but history proved him right. Separatism has remained a powerful political force in Quebec provincial politics but in the 40 years since then it has always remained within constitutional limits and its leaders have never sought to employ extra-constitutional, violent or terrorist methods.
In cases of ethnic conflict, as the Northern Ireland mass rioting in Belfast in August 1969 demonstrated, the greater the loss in lives, the exponentially greater is the loss of faith suffered by the government, and the degree of hatred and blood feuds on both sides of the conflict increases proportionately As a result the scale and intensity of the conflict is greatly magnified.
Had the British government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson intervened directly sometime during the year prior to August 1969 when security conditions were steadily deteriorating on the ground in Belfast and around Northern Ireland, it might have prevented the bloody rioting that killed more than a dozen people and that made thousands more homeless.
The actual casualties suffered at that time were very small compared to the scale of such ethnic cleansing, genocide and massacre situations as the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the Serbian aggression and massacres perpetrated against Serbian and Bosnian Muslims in 1992-95, the massacres in Darfur or the displacement of perhaps three quarters of a million Azerbaijan Muslims by Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Yet those modest casualties in 1969 Belfast were still sufficient to start a cycle of 25 years of ethnic violence and civil war. As Pierre Trudeau of Canada and our own Dwight Eisenhower understood, it is far safer and cheaper to react immediately with overwhelming force before the rioting and the massacres have even begun.
Further evidence to this effect can be found in one of the most important, thorough and forgotten reports in the long, widespread and complicated history of the British Empire. It was the 1930 Dowbiggin Report conducted by veteran British colonial police administrator Sir Herbert Dowbiggin into the causes of the 1929 Arab-Jewish rioting in Palestine, which was then ruled by Britain under a League of Nations Mandate.
Dowbiggin's conclusion, which the 1930s pathetic British appeasement governments of Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain all ignored, was that there was no substitute for putting overwhelming force on the ground to prevent such riots or, once they began, to flood the area with troops and police as quickly as possible.
Another and very important lesson of the Northern Irish conflict was learned the hard way in Turkey fighting the PKK, but Russia's leaders seem to have forgotten it in Kyrgyzstan. And that is: It takes a full-scale national government to deal with a major emergency crisis or threat to the state.
Local authorities do not have the resources, the experience, the quality of troops, a sufficient number of police and emergency services, and local politicians will simply lack the confidence, the stature, the experience and the decisiveness in decision-making to make the necessary tough and rapid judgment calls.
By the time a local government calls for outside help, the situation will already be out of control and speed of response will be of the essence.
This happened in Northern Ireland where the local, sectarian Protestant-Unionist dominated government was reluctant to cede any of its cherished local power to the national government and parliament in London. It therefore dithered, bungled its inept response to the steady deterioration in public security and only turned in panic to the national government after law and order had already collapsed in Northern Ireland.
We can currently see a similar phenomenon developing in Kyrgyzstan. The interim government of President Otunbayeva steadily lost influence and any pretense at effective government in the Jalalabad and Osh regions of the south of the country during the two months after their April 7 revolution.
Law and order totally collapsed in Osh on June 11 and the next day Otunbayeva quite correctly called on the Russian government for help.
However, the immediate and clear response from President Medvedev in the Kremlin was to issue a refusal to send troops. The British government of Harold Wilson at least passed this test, albeit belatedly in 1969. President Medvedev so far has not. It is the innocent people of southern Kyrgyzstan who have paid the price.
No doubt it will seem strange for an old Reaganite and veteran Cold Warrior like myself to criticize the president of Russia for NOT sending troops into a neighboring republic to restore law and order. But, you see, I've walked the streets of cities that have been torn apart by civil war and riots that were allowed to rage out of control. The cost in innocent lives and suffering is awful.
I oppose unnecessary wars and I feel like vomiting on the legions of fake-macho, armchair warriors which 21st century American culture seems to mass-produce in endless numbers. But when it comes to putting troops and cops on the ground to protect the innocent and shoot dead the murderers and the rapists -- that I'll cheer every time. So should you.
Martin Sieff is a former senior foreign correspondent for The Washington Times and the former Managing Editor, International Affairs for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting (including for his reporting on the Caucasus ethnic conflicts in 1990). He is the author of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East (Regnery 2008).”
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