Western media today reported that the United States is planning to send elite military forces to the South Caucasus state of Georgia to help authorities there restore order in a crime-ridden region bordering Chechnya. Despite Georgia's repeated denials, analysts believe U.S. military involvement in the country is inescapable. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch talks with two regional experts about the possible motives behind Washington's expected decision and the form its military assistance to Georgia could take.
Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, the United States for the first time signaled that the South Caucasus, a region strategically located between Russia and Turkey, could play a key role in the second act of its military campaign against terrorism.
In an interview published in the 11 February issue of the Georgian "Akhali Versia" ("New Version") weekly, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, Philip Remler, said his country had obtained information showing that a few dozen Al-Qaeda fighters had fled Afghanistan and had found refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous area formally under Georgian control which borders Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya to the south.
Remler said the suspected Al-Qaeda fighters are in contact with an Arab-born Chechen field commander known as Khattab. Initially, Remler's words sounded like a godsend for Russia and a blow to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Located some 150 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, the Pankisi Gorge has been a major source of contention between Georgia and Russia, which claims that hundreds of Chechen fighters are hiding among the estimated 6,000 refugees who have sought refuge in the area since the Kremlin started its second Chechen campaign more than two years ago.
Since the 11 September attacks in the U.S., Moscow has also been trying to prove its case that Chechen separatists are linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Two weeks ago (15 February), Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said that bin Laden himself might be hiding in Pankisi, a charge Georgia bluntly denies.
Ivanov's accusations were so unsustainable that a few days later (21 February), the head of the Russian Army's General Staff, General Anatolii Kvashnin, had to admit that bin Laden could not possibly be hiding in Pankisi.
Be that as it may, Russia is still insisting that Georgia allow Moscow to help it restore law and order in Pankisi and clear the area of all suspected separatist fighters. Moscow says the fighters are using Pankisi as a rear base for operations in Chechnya.
The head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) Nikolai Patrushev, visited Tbilisi last week (21 February) for talks with Georgian officials on cooperation against international terrorism and drug trafficking. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Shevardnadze, Patrushev -- who is formally in charge of Russia's Chechnya operation -- dismissed reports that both countries are considering a joint security crackdown in Pankisi.
A few days before (18 February), Shevardnadze himself ruled out any military cooperation with Russia in Pankisi, but said Georgia was "ready for dialogue" with Washington over possible joint action involving U.S. Special Forces.
Georgian officials claim that all they need from the U.S. or any other "friendly country" is intelligence data and technical support to help them conduct what they describe as a mere "police operation." Washington, in turn, says that, in addition, it is ready to help the Georgian army set up antiterrorist forces.
Defense officials in Tbilisi today said that five American experts -- including three representatives from the U.S. military's European Command and two representatives from the Pentagon -- had arrived in the country to advise the Georgian military on how to fight terrorism. But they insist the delegation is part of a cooperation agreement with the three Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and will leave Tbilisi tomorrow. They also deny media reports about any direct U.S. military involvement in the Pankisi Gorge.
The region's reputation for lawlessness openly challenges the prestige of the Georgian government. Since the beginning of the first Russian-Chechen conflict in the mid-1990s, Pankisi has been home to criminal gangs specializing in weapons smuggling, drugs trafficking, and kidnapping. Reports that these gangs have been operating in conjunction with corrupt Georgian security officials have not been confirmed.
In mid-January, yielding to both international and domestic pressures, the government launched a special police operation to reassert its authority over Pankisi. However, the security crackdown has produced little so far, and the region still remains out of Tbilisi's control.
Two weeks ago (9 February), Georgia's State Security Minister Valeri Khaburdzania told a cabinet meeting that the operation had secured the arrest of an unspecified number of Jordanian and Saudi citizens allegedly planning attacks in Chechnya.
Richard Reeve is the editor of the London-based "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments" newsletter, or "JSSA." He told our correspondent that Khaburdzania's claims -- which have not been independently confirmed -- could be an attempt to get the U.S. involved in the region in an effort to prevent Russian military action in Pankisi. But he said Georgia has little room in which to maneuver.
"Basically, my interpretation is that the Georgian government feels hasty about Pankisi now to appease the Russians. But for domestic reasons, it does not want Russian forces operating on Georgian soil. Hence, the attempt to involve American troops within Georgia. However, [the Georgians] do not seem to want the [U.S.] troops to do very much because that would annoy the Russians. Therefore, they are trying to be seen doing something without really doing anything."
Svante Cornell is a regional expert at the Washington-based School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University and the editor of the "Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst" newsletter. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the apparent willingness of the new Georgian security officials, appointed last November, to cope with the Pankisi issue might be one of the factors prompting the U.S. to move into Georgia. But Cornell believes the main reason would be the fear of possible Russian intervention.
"In a sense, what both the Georgians and the Americans, I believe, are afraid of, is that a Russian intervention of any kind in Pankisi would lead to the criminals, the [Chechen] fighters, or whoever [is in Pankisi] spreading down into Georgia. Now you have a localized problem in Pankisi. But if there was a Russian intervention from the north, that would lead to these people dispersing throughout the Georgian territory down to Tbilisi, which would mean that you would have a situation totally out of control. And I think that this is one of the main reasons why the Americans are moving in -- in order to prevent such a thing from happening."
Both defense analyst Reeve and Caucasus expert Cornell believe the U.S. is genuinely interested in helping Shevardnadze's government reassert its authority over Pankisi, which is one of the many regions in Georgia not controlled by central authorities. However, the shape any American military assistance may take remains unclear.
Last week (23 February), the Jerusalem-based "Debka File" electronic defense newsletter issued a report saying that an advanced military team has already arrived in Georgia to prepare for the possible deployment of U.S. elite troops. This report followed similar information published the day before by the Austin, Texas-based Strategic Forecasting intelligence consulting firm, also known as Stratfor, which quoted unidentified Georgian security sources as saying about 40 U.S. military personnel had landed in Tbilisi on 21 February.
"The New York Times" today reports that the U.S. is considering sending up to 200 elite troops to the region, while America's CBS television network said Washington might provide the kind of training and equipment U.S. soldiers are currently giving the Philippine army in its war against the Abu Sayeff terrorist group. None of these reports can yet be confirmed.
"JSSA" editor Reeve believes that, as far as the Pankisi Gorge is concerned, U.S. military involvement will most likely remain limited, with Washington basically meeting Georgia's demands for intelligence data on alleged criminal or terrorist networks.
"I would expect cooperation in this phase to be essentially intelligence-related. I don't think that the time frame is available for real military training, if that's to be effective in the Pankisi situation."
By helping the Georgian government address its domestic security concerns, Washington might pursue longer-term objectives. In the wake of the Afghan war, the U.S. has built up its military presence in Central Asia, notably setting up bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Some 1,500 U.S. soldiers are currently deployed on Uzbekistan's southern Khabanad airfield, near the Afghan border. Construction of an American base near Kyrgyzstan's Manas international airport is already under way, and U.S. experts are currently working at Tajikistan's southern Kulyab air base.
Despite Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's recent claims that American and allied soldiers will remain in the region for only a limited time, experts believe the U.S. has long-term security ambitions in the region.
To Cornell's view, one of the main U.S. concerns now is to secure a safe supply route to these bases. That, he believes, could partly explain why helping Georgia reassert its control over its own territory has suddenly become a U.S. priority.
"[The Americans] realize that they need to have some type of military influence over the Caucasus. How do you supply [your] bases in Central Asia? You cannot do it through Russia. You cannot do it through China. And you cannot do it through Iran. [That] leaves you with two options: either via Afghanistan and Pakistan, or via the Caucasus from Turkey. And I don't think that the U.S. wants to rely on only one of these two options, because the situation in Afghanistan is still very unclear. Even Pakistan is not a country with which the U.S. can make plans on the long term. That means that they would need at least to have the ability to supply their bases [in Central Asia] through the Caucasus, which [in turn] means that they would probably need to have some type of military presence in the Caucasus."
Georgian media have already started speculating that, should the U.S. decide to move troops into the country, they could be deployed at Vaziani, an airbase located near Tbilisi, which the Russians vacated last year.
Yet, regional experts point out that Washington may decide not to set up a military base in Georgia -- at least for the time being -- lest that create tensions with Russia, which still sees Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus as its sphere of influence. Cornell also says that the U.S. desire not to upset the Kremlin may prompt Washington to use other countries -- possibly NATO allies Britain and Turkey -- as proxies to implement its security ambitions in the Caucasus.
Georgia's State Security Minister Khaburdzania is scheduled to visit London next month before heading to Washington.
Turkey has a long history of military cooperation with Georgia. Turkish experts helped the Georgian government repair the Vaziani airfield after the Russian withdrawal and have helped train Georgian army officers for years. Security in the Caucasus is a priority for Ankara, which is involved in a multibillion-dollar U.S.-sponsored project to build an oil pipeline linking Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through Georgia.
Whatever shape the U.S. military help will take, it will, first of all, profit Shevardnadze, who has been pressing for his country's integration into NATO military structures since 1995. Reeve of the "JSSA" believes that, in that respect, the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda fighters in Pankisi might turn out to be to the Georgian leader's advantage.
"Four or five months ago, nobody would have predicted that American forces would have set up bases, or been allowed to set up bases, in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan in the process of the Afghanistan war and, thereafter, that is what happened. Shevardnadze sees this as his chance to invite American forces in to take up some sort of similar presence within Georgia."