The Pentagon announced yesterday that the U.S. may train and equip Georgian troops to crack down on alleged terrorists in lawless areas of the Caucasus country. But Moscow is far from happy with a decision analysts say may be intended in part to bolster Tbilisi against Russian political and military interference.
Washington, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States military is exploring ways to help Georgia gain full control over lawless areas of the South Caucasus country that harbor criminal gangs and smugglers -- and possibly fighters linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.
The Pankisi Gorge, 150 kilometers north of Tbilisi on the border with Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya, has long been a source of tension between Georgia and Moscow. And the possibility of even limited U.S. military involvement in the former Soviet republic is already sparking protests from Moscow, which has long sought to engage Tbilisi in joint military operations against what Moscow says are Arab terrorists and Chechen warlords living in the region.
But fiercely independent Georgia, a key American ally in the region under President Eduard Shevardnadze, has consistently rebuffed Russia's requests for joint military operations. According to a senior State Department official, Georgia requested the U.S. military assistance.
U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday that the assistance primarily consists of equipment and technical help.
Pentagon officials told reporters yesterday in Washington that the U.S. has already supplied Tbilisi with 10 combat helicopters and is considering training and further equipping its military to stabilize areas such as the Pankisi Gorge. But they stressed that any U.S. involvement will be limited to training and not involve combat.
Their comments followed remarks on 26 February by a spokesman for the U.S. military's European Command in Germany that 40 U.S. military personnel, including members of the Special Forces troops that have played a key role in the Afghan military campaign, had recently visited Georgia to assess its security needs.
General Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, elaborated on their Georgian visit to reporters yesterday at the Pentagon.
"We've asked the [U.S.] European Command to take a look and see with our counterparts [in Georgia] whether or not there is a benefit to training and equipping [Georgian troops], so that if there were a plan that came forward that both governments were comfortable with, then certainly trainers would be part of that. But we don't know that yet."
However, Pace stressed that no military plan has yet been adopted, despite reports in the American media that the Pentagon is set to send a sizable number of special forces to train the Georgian military in counterterrorism.
"The two governments are discussing right now ways that the United States and the government of Georgia can work together to assist in training and equipping the Georgian armed forces to help them with their own internal security problems."
Pace stopped short of calling any eventual campaign in Georgia "antiterrorist" in nature, but Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke went slightly further in her comments at the same news conference.
"We have, as we said, been focused very hard on the fact that Al-Qaeda has cells in 50 or 60 different countries around the world. There have been some indications of connections, some connections, of Al-Qaeda in that country [Georgia]. But going beyond that -- [going beyond] saying there have been 'some connections' -- is not appropriate."
"The Washington Post" newspaper -- a traditionally reliable source -- yesterday quoted an unidentified senior U.S. defense official as saying the U.S. mission is based on a belief that Arab fighters tied to Al-Qaeda have joined Chechen rebels to battle the Russian army. And Philip Remler, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, told a Georgian weekly, "Akhali Versia," earlier this month that the U.S. has obtained information showing that a few dozen Al-Qaeda fighters had found refuge in the Pankisi Gorge after fleeing Afghanistan.
Bush himself, asked yesterday about U.S. plans to help Georgia deal with its internal security problems, told reporters in Washington: "So long as there's Al-Qaeda influence anywhere, we will help the host countries rout them out and bring them to justice."
Moscow has long said that hundreds of Chechen fighters, as well as Arab Islamist terrorists, live among thousands of civilian Chechen refugees who have sought shelter in the mountainous Pankisi Gorge. Moscow says the fighters use the area as a base for operations in Chechnya.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday that Moscow does not view any U.S military assistance to Georgia favorably: "Regarding the possible deployment of the U.S. military in Georgia, from our point of view, this could further aggravate the situation in the region, which is already difficult, and Washington knows our position very well."
Asked about Russian concerns, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing yesterday that the U.S. only wants to help stabilize the region, which he said is in everyone's interest.
Until recently, Georgia had always denied that Chechen or foreign fighters were in the Pankisi Gorge. But Zeyno Baran, who heads the Georgia program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, says that the dynamic between Russia and Georgia was greatly affected by September's terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its ensuing war in Afghanistan.
"This [Pankisi Gorge issue] has been a tension between Russia and Georgia for several years now. What changed was, of course, 11 September, and after 11 September, just a few days afterward even, Russian government officials started saying, 'We should do what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan in Georgia.' "
Baran suggested that the apparent contradiction in U.S. statements about the nature of the terrorist threat in Georgia may be due to the fact that explicit U.S. acknowledgement of such a threat could add legitimacy to Russia's war in Chechnya.
Moscow has long considered it a war against terrorism. The U.S., while it acknowledges that Russia faces a terrorist threat in Chechnya, continues to emphasize what it sees as Russian human rights abuses and the use of "overwhelming force" in the breakaway region.
Baran says that besides helping to stabilize lawless areas, U.S. military assistance to Georgia may also be intended to help Tbilisi bolster itself against Russian interference in its affairs and against further military incidents, such as last fall's bombing in the Pankisi Gorge, which Georgia claims was conducted by Russian military helicopters.
Despite Russia's initial protestations, Baran says Moscow is likely to back down on the issue because Putin still appears determined to improve relations with Washington.