Chechens and Uzbeks, Sittin’ in a Tree

by Joshua Foust on 5/17/2011 · 5 comments

There was a suicide bombing today in Quetta.

Five suspects, including three women and two children, were approaching a check post in the residential area of Kharotabad when security forces discovered they had explosive materials. The forces tried to arrest the group, at which point, one of the females blew herself up to avoid arrest, reported Arzoo Rehman for Express 24/7…

The Frontier Corps (FC) said all the attackers, including three women and two men, were foreigners of either Chechen or Uzbek origin. The women were reportedly equipped with hand grenades.

Here’s the thing: it could have maybe been the work of the Shahidka, the Chechen “black widows” whose husbands were killed during the Russian ethnic cleansing of Chechnya a decade ago. But here’s the other thing: those black widows, originally organized by now-deceased Chechen militant Shamil Basayev, tend to target Russia, which is responsible for their widowhood, and not random police checkpoints in southwestern Pakistan. Despite the phantom Chechen woman suicide bomber-nurses of Kunduz, Shahidki just don’t really operate outside of Chechnya and Russia.

The suicide bomber could have been Uzbek women. There’s not enough data to say for certain, though if true it would be a novel development in Uzbek militancy in the FATA. But what is absolutely certain is that you really couldn’t confuse Chechen and Uzbek women. They are completely different ethnicities: one Caucasian (by definition!), the other Asiatic.

A typical Chechen woman. A typical Uzbek woman.

Do you really think the Frontier Corps can’t tell these women apart? That’s actually a possibility. Which leaves us with two possibilities: the FC can’t tell non-Pakistanis apart, or they have no idea who really blew themselves up. Either way, we shouldn’t leap to conclusions about the identities of those women.

The issue of mis-identifying all foreigners you can’t recognize as “Chechen” is a sadly common feature of studying Afghanistan and Pakistan. Locals in both countries—and the reporters who gullibly repeat whatever they’re told—routinely identify anyone with vaguely light skin speaking a weird language as “Chechen.” But really, we have no idea if there are any Chechens and what they might be up to. Just unreliable stories, bad memories, and obvious misidentifications. It’s one of many reasons I just assume all stories about Chechens in Afghanistan and Pakistan are wrong.

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– 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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Jim May 17, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Do all Uzbek women have furrowed brows all the time?

Metin May 18, 2011 at 5:32 am

saying ‘typical Uzbek look’ is like saying ‘typical american look’. For I know, there is no such a thing like typical american look, except for looking stupid with mouth wide open showing teeth -;)
Jokes aside, uzbeks are of mixed origin. Their look varies from pure asiatic to pure caucasian, most of them standing somewhere in between.

Ian May 18, 2011 at 5:56 am

Gotta agree with Metin here; appointing ethnicity by facial appearance is as unscientific as saying “I heard em speaking Russian, so they must be Chechens or Uzbeks if they’re in Baluchistan.” There is no typical when it comes to Eurasian identities.

Joshua Foust May 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

Ian I didn’t mean for it to be a hard and fast rule, but it’s not uncalled for to note that Uzbeks and Chechens are very different countries with very different people living in them.

Also the Pakistanis are now saying they found Russian passports on these people. Take that for what you will.

AG May 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

“There’s not enough data to say for certain, though if true it would be a novel development in Uzbek militancy in the FATA” — FATA or Balochistan? They are two very distinct areas and each has their own distinct version of militants coupled with different tolerance levels on part of the authorities.

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