Army Major Disputes Story of Chechen Fighters in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 7/3/2009 · 13 comments

Some time ago, I discussed an article Philip Smucker wrote about the presence of Al Qaeda along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I was mostly skeptical of this section in particular:

Interviews with US military commanders and American radio intercepts of Arab and Chechen fighters as well as confirmed captures or kills of foreign fighters inside Afghanistan bolster the findings…

An Afghan, working with Western forces in Afghanistan and who asked to remain anonymous, said he had monitored al-Qaeda radio traffic in a Paktika province district that is a stronghold of the Haqqani network, run by Sirajuddin Haqqani. “I set up a radio scanner two months ago and I picked up Chechens and Arabs talking regularly,” he said. “At one point, we heard an Arab talking to a Chechen say, ‘Hey, the money has come in, you can attack soon’.” The Afghan said that an Afghan al-Qaeda figure, Maulvi Twaha, who he said he had personally seen shoot dead five Afghan students in 2001, was operating openly in the province, assisting foreign agents and fighters to enter and leave the region.

An American, embedded as a trainer with the Afghan National Army, confirmed similar radio traffic. “It sounds from radio chatter like they have more recruits coming in, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Chechen fighters,” said US Army Major Cory Schultz, 37, from the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the time, I raised some doubts:

For years, since the start of the war, the existence of Chechens inside Afghanistan has been repeatedly asserted in the press but no one has ever presented proof of their existence. Indeed,that Smucker relies on an anonymous Afghan monitoring radio broadcasts to claim the presence of Chechens is telling: does that magical Afghan speak Chechen? Can he tell the difference between that and other Caucasian, slavic, or Central Asian languages?

I know and like Major Schultz, but again: how does he know? Does FOB Bermel just happen to have Turkic linguists and Chechen-fluent analysts to tell them what they’re listening to? For example, nearby Zabul province has a noticeable population of Uzbeks living near Qalat, the provincial capital: can their linguists tell the difference between Turkmen and Uzbek? I’ve never heard of Turkmen being in the southeast like that. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue—and I don’t think anyone is lying, let me emphasize that—but this kind of assertion is completely at odds with what we otherwise know of the area.

I was able to get in touch with Major Schulz (Smucker misspelled his name), and he had something startling to say. “I never said the quote that he used,” he told me via email. Major Schulz continued, “I stated that there have been reports that Chechens have been in the area but we have no way of verifying this information.”

That’s quite a different story than the one Smucker told, and Major Schulz offered several additional complaints about Smucker’s conduct and questioning while he was there. Major Schulz argues that Smucker, “chose to print contrary statements even though we told him the information he was getting was wrong.” Among the assertions Smucker made was that most of the violence in the area was driven by Al Qaeda; Major Schulz claims he and his team told Smucker they were actually tribal and local, not Al Qaeda.

“Multiple times,” Major Schulz said, he and his captain, “told him that his information was totally off and he chose to run with it anyway.” He attributes the slant of the reporting to a dispute Smucker had with the local PAO.

If the allegations are true, then they are serious, as they would imply that Philip Smucker knowingly printed false or misleading statements attributed to individuals who dispute them. That is a serious ethical violation. I have been unable to resolve how much the Asia Times fact-checked Smucker’s article—they have been caught out on this front before.

For Smucker himself, this is also a potentially damaging charge. While he garnered a lot of praise for his reporting from Tora Bora in 2001, in 2003 he was implicated when the Christian Science Monitor had to apologize and withdraw Smucker’s reporting regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged payments to British Member of Parliament George Galloway.

When contacted for this post, Smucker insisted his version of the story was drawn directly from his notes, and that he presented an accurate account of the conversation. I lack the ability to mediate between the two—unless there is a recording somewhere, it’s kind of a he-said/she-said thing.

The Chechen thing worries me, though. From my conversations with Smucker, there seems to be an overriding sense in several U.S. and NATO units that there is a massive Chechen presence both within al Qaeda and in particular as a significant presence among the foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The evidence for this is… someone saying they heard it on a radio intercept and anonymous officials saying they exist. I’m afraid that’s not sufficient to overcome my original skepticism—when I was at FOB Salerno, a cultural adviser who grew up in the U.S. told me that many Afghans call fair-skinned foreign fighters “Chechen” in part because that’s what they think the Americans want to hear (which is a larger problem with interpreters not being fully qualified—a topic well beyond our scope here).

Then there’s the language issue. I’d be doubtful if even a fluent Russian-speaker could tell the difference between Chechen, Ingush, Agul, Avar, Azeri, or Nogai. Being able to recognize a Turkic language like Uzbek probably won’t help much, either. Given the other cases I know of where someone is identified as Chechen then found out to be of another Russian ethnicity, I find it difficult to just sort of accept that based on SIGINT in a language I know no one in the Yukon AO speaks, they know there are Chechens nearby.

It’s also important to note that Al Qaeda itself has a compelling interest in selling the presence of Chechens amongst its ranks in South Asia. It makes the jihad look more international (and thus, in theory, more attractive to new recruits), and it presents a pleasing boogeyman to distract attention from the Punjabs and Arabs in the group. Just as how petty criminals in Kapisa claim to be HiG because it makes them sound scary, so too is it entirely possible Al Qaeda claims Chechens to make itself seem something it is not.

None of this is to dismiss Chechnya or Chechen radicals as an issue. They are. There just isn’t much evidence beyond hearsay that there are many, if any, Chechens fighting the jihad outside of Chechnya. And it still doesn’t mean they don’t exist, merely that I don’t find Smucker’s published evidence convincing of much, and one of his interview subjects vigorously disputes what he wrote.

As I said above, Smucker says his quote came directly from his notebook. Major Schulz claims the quote comes from disassociated snippets of the discussion, and is not representative of their conversation or his intent in speaking. Major Schulz aso adds, “if [Smucker’s] notes are that accurate then why is my name misspelled, my age incorrect and where I’m from wrong?” He adds he has seen “zero proof” beyond scattered rumors that there any Chechens anywhere in Afghanistan. I’m investigating further, and will post more when I can find out anything more.

Update: Smucker has contacted me, to say he feels I am treating his own reporting unfairly. Since everything is linked, I’ll allow readers to choose for themselves, but Smucker vigorously disputes how I’m framing things here—specifically that he never says al Qaeda drives most of the violence along the border, nor was he writing about Bermel. Again: choose for yourself whom to believe.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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BruceR July 3, 2009 at 12:40 pm

My experience on this issue (linguistic evidence of foreign fighters) was comparable to Maj. Shulz’s.

I would consider any information on this point gathered by local Afghan personnel using handheld scanners, as opposed to dedicated SigInt teams with trained linguists, inherently suspect, and the journalist should have too.

(I would also question a journalist who says he has faith in his notes, after he mispells the source’s name, btw.)

Joshua Foust July 3, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Well, remember the entire charge that MAJ Schulz levies against Smucker is that he had his story narrative and only wanted quotes to back him up. So that is consistent with what’s going on here.

It is also important to remember that Smucker says he has no agenda, and without any firm evidence, I really don’t know. The whole thing smells fishy, but I don’t want to accuse anyone of something I’m not certain of. It’s entirely possible Smucker is telling the truth, even if my gut tells me otherwise.

mh July 3, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Having been there, I can say without any reservation that from at least 2007-2008, there was no evidence of Chechens in Nangarhar, Nuristan, Konar, or Laghman provinces despite over 100 reports of their presence often trumpeted by the CJTF. It’s very easy and comforting for commanders to blame every moderately well coordinated and “successful” insurgent attack on mythical “Chechens” rather than local fighters. A basic reading of late 1800s British Army writings from Pakistan and Afghanistan gives a good indication of the true tactical ability of Pashtun fighters. Were there Chechen advisers present in Malakand Agency in 1893? Of course not, yet coordinated attacks utilizing effective tactics occurred on a regular basis inflicting significant casualties on the British. I fought this problem everyday as an Intel officer in RC East and I think at the Brigade and Battalion levels I was successful. However, it is more difficult to fight at the Company and below where trusted interpreters and local informants with their own agenda give their own analysis of events without hard evidence and are not challenged by the units with whom they interact.

Ihor July 3, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Joshua, Ian, Nathan, Michael:

Gentlemen, you are experts on the Turkics. I wonder if you could comment on this article from the Los Angeles Times. (I’m sorry if this is too of topic.). Thank you indeed.

Turks increasingly turn to Islamic extremism
Al Qaeda’s reliance on Arabs is altering as recruits from Turkey and Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia form a recent wave of trainees, experts say.
By Sebastian Rotella,0,2926336.story

C hally July 4, 2009 at 1:26 am

Joshua Frost you are something else. What would constitute evidevce of a Chechen fighting in Afghanistan? For someone to drag a body into a press conference? And then get an anthropologist to confirm, yesindeed, this is a dead Chechen?? Hey buddy, question- how come like half your posts contain the sentence “when i was at FOB Salerno…” Yay!!! You went to Salerno, therefore you know ‘what is going on “over there”. Amazing how sure you sound of your own armchair pontifications- Did you ever wear the uniform and the body armor and hump up a mountain on the border?? Dude, let me clear this up for you, I’ve been to Salerno too. For a total of about five days out of the year-the rest of my year in Khost was spent in tera-zayi, gulam khan, bori-tana and babrak-tana, the border districts of that lovely province. Dude, there are Chechens fighting (and dying) in Khost, Paktika and Paktya and there have been for years. I can’t speak for the rest of a-stan but yeah there have been plenty of bodies of dead Chechens in those provinces for anyone who has ACTUALLY BEEN THERE. How do i know? Because the Afghans know a Chechen dead guy from an Arab dead guy from an Afghan from a Pakistani when they see one, that’s how. Like we know a southern accent from a midwestern from a northeastern accent and an American from a Canadian. What is so complicated about this for you, unless you’re just feeding on being a skeptic/hater/know nothing-know-it-all. Seek reality my friend, not the bows of others as you try to prove you are an expert. You hurt the cause when you deny reality, especially when you deny the most basic truths apparent to anyone who has been up close. Happy Fourth of July everyone. Except the commies out there-up yours!

thane July 4, 2009 at 3:23 am

“Because the Afghans know a Chechen dead guy from an Arab dead guy from an Afghan from a Pakistani when they see one, that’s how. Like we know a southern accent from a midwestern from a northeastern accent and an American from a Canadian.”

1. Actually, there are quite a number of arabs who could pass as being from the Caucus, google search Circassians, those are the descedents of people from the Causcus who live in Arab countries. I would be REAL curious how an Afghan could tell the difference between a dead Afghan Pashtun and a Pakistani one.

2. Pray tell, could you automatically know the difference between a French accent from Montreal, and a French Accent from Nice? How about a Spanish speaker from Mexico and from Chile? But an Afghan automatically knows the difference between Chechen and Azeri?

3. Not everybody from Canada sounds like the cast of Strange Brew, and it is not automatic that you would know somebody is from Canada by their accent.


Kilo July 4, 2009 at 5:25 am

“Like we know a southern accent from a midwestern from a northeastern accent and an American from a Canadian. ”

You’re missing the point.
First of all, how are you telling a dead Canadian from a dead American? Secondly and more to the point, how’s an Afghani ?
Seriously, did you not notice this was already addressed in the post you are replying to ?

Joshua Foust July 4, 2009 at 6:11 am

C hally, as Kilo noted, I did address this in the story. Chechen is not a widely spoke or easily recognizable language (that is, when spoken alongside other Caucasian languages). Telling the difference between dialects of English is not the same.

That being said, the entire point of this story is that people there are disputing the evidence of Chechen fighters in Afghanistan (and it’s important to note that I am referring specifically to Afghanistan). Simply insisting there are all these bodies doesn’t really constitute a counterargument, especially based upon weird reasoning like Afghans can tell Chechens apart from Russians or Turks like a Southerner can tell a Yank. It doesn’t work like that.

I also do enjoy the condescension. Now the standard is, actually traveling to the FOBs constitutes “armchair pontifications.” I suppose only the CPLs manning OP4 can ever discuss things? Right.

Ian July 4, 2009 at 8:02 am

I seriously doubt that Chechens are speaking Chechen to each other on the radio in Afghanistan. As Ihor points out, there are a lot of folks from the post-Soviet world hanging out in Af and Pak, and I’d bet money they speak Russian to one another.

Afghan intel dude hears Russian on the radio=scary Chechen superfighters. And yes, C hally, the dead body of a Chechen (preferably with a passport to match) would be proof enough to dispel the doubt. That’s how the evidence-based world works.

noah July 4, 2009 at 1:41 pm

I got in a little late on this one, it’s obviously gotten all silly already. I did want to say though, that the arguement is actually stronger than most of you are making it.

Chechen and the other Caucasian languages (Azeri is not one, there seems to be some confusion on this point) are not even remotely related to Russian (nor to Arabic or Pashto or Dari/Farsi/Tajik). As you say Josh, “even [being] a fluent Russian speaker” not only wouldn’t help you distinguish any of these languages from one another, it’s no more relevant than being a fluent English or Chinese or Swahili speaker unless you mean to say “being a Russian who’s lived in close proximity to one or two of these languages and could recognize them with some accuracy without being able to speak them.”

Back to the thread, I don’t get the logic of a person’s accent helping distinguish them by nationality when they’re dead.

I couldn’t help that one, it’s kind of been said already but I couldn’t pass that up.

But yeah, the point here that Josh and others are actually making is that “identifying a Chechen” by their language over the radio would require actually knowing Chechen. Out of a field of fifteen or twenty other unidentified languages, picking Chechen out of a crowd correctly is about as likely as me being able to identify a Navajo by listening to phone conversations in Navajo, Cherokee, Apache, Yiddish, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Swahili, Tagalog, and say, Nogai.

And as far as bodies go, claiming that Chechens have physical traits that make them easily distinguishable–to a people who have no historical contact with them–is kind of like saying, I don’t know, yeah that your average Afghan could tell the difference between a Guatamalan, a Mexican, a Venuzualan and a Peruvian Indian just by looking at them.

I find the whole “ghost Chechens” thing pretty fascinating. The larger point I think we’re all trying to make is just what Ian said–“prove me wrong” isn’t really very useful for anything. The more interesting discussion here is probably the one that’s been brought up a few times but then overshadowed–what does it mean that people seem to want there to be Chechens in Afghanistan?

Steering the discussion back to why this rumor of massive Chechen involvement in Af/Pak is so damn sexy to some people might be a more fruitful avenue.

Christian July 4, 2009 at 3:11 pm

I have to give it to the Kremlin and the Russian tabloids. Score one for them on tagging the Chechen insurgency to every terrorist/insurgent group in the region.

tequila July 4, 2009 at 3:20 pm

I think definitely a part of it is the mythic air of competence or fierceness some people like to attribute to Chechens, given the severe beating they gave to the Russians in Grozny back in the First Chechen War. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the mythical Chechens appear to fight us — there were many reports of Chechens fighting in Iraq, notably Falluja (see Bing West’s book, where he uncritically reports Chechens as being especially tenacious fighters).

Shohmurod July 5, 2009 at 9:11 am

Here’s a 2002 CSM article with a balanced view on this topic.

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