Tucked under the Caucasus Mountains linking Europe and Asia, Georgia boasts a culture over 2400 years old. On occasion it has played a major role in world affairs; its most famous son, Iosif Djugashvili (Joseph Stalin) helped shape the twentieth century. Yet it, and its five million inhabitants, are remote from the consciousness of most Americans, even as it begins to play host to the U.S. war machine (deployed, ostensibly, to combat “terrorism” in the Pankisi Gorge). The main body of U.S. forces began arriving on May 19, to refurbish two Soviet-era bases for indefinite American use and to implement “Operation Train and Equip.” We should ask–as we should about the U.S. troops in the Philippines and Yemen–why are they there?
Georgia under Shevardnadze
First, some background. Georgia obtained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and soon developed into “one of the most combat–ridden and anarchic places on the planetdominated by the overriding influences of an underground economy (i.e., black market) and organized crime” (San Francisco Chronicle, March 10). The ethnic strife afflicting much of the whole former Soviet bloc-from the Balkans to Nagorno-Karabakh-broke out here as well; the provinces of Abkhazia in the northwest along the Black Sea, Adzharia (a region adjoining Turkey), South Ossetia, and ethnically Armenian Akhalkalaki region all demanded autonomy or independence.
The Georgian Republic’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia (of dissident “anticommunist” credentials) approved Georgia’s entry into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the continuation of a Russian military presence. (The neighboring Russian Federation currently maintains three bases on Georgian soil.) Unable to contain the secessionist movements, he was deposed in a military coup in 1992 after Abkhazian guerrillas (with some Russian support) defeated government forces, achieving de facto independence of this region of some 150,000 to 300,000 people. Gamsakhuria was succeeded by Eduard Shevardnadze, and died under suspicious circumstances a year later.
A former Foreign Minister of the defunct USSR, Shevardnadze used his nomenklatura connections to rise to power–as did so many erstwhile “communists” in the former Soviet republics (Le monde diplomatique, December 1998). The moral and ideological bankruptcy of that late Soviet elite is apparent in his record since; Shevardnadze has cultivated a power base among nationalists (compare Slobodan Milosevic). In Georgia, these tend to rally around the Georgian Orthodox Church as the crux of their identity politics. Having postured as a “Marxist–Leninist” for decades, attaining high posts in the Soviet regime, Shevardnadze now not only promotes gangster capitalism, and enthusiastically hosts NATO exercises, but also poses as a true son of the Georgian Orthodox Church, peppering talks with references to “the Lord” whom, he avers, has saved him from two assassination attempts.
This conversion to Orthodoxy has been accompanied by a strategic alliance with ultra–nationalist thugs who have targeted religious minorities. The British Helsinki Human Rights Group has documented instances of government complicity in the actions of religious extremists’ against Protestant groups. Human Rights Watch has also documented instances of persecution of religious minorities. It also reports judicial torture, and harassment of reporters and dissidents, and declares that the regime has been marked by “widespread corruption among senior government officials closely linked to” Shevardnadze himself. His re-election in 2000, they find, “was marred by irregularities.”
Last September the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a highly critical resolution regarding Georgia’s failure to honor commitments to human rights it had formally undertaken in 1999. The resolution expressed “deep concern on allegations of ill–treatment or torture of detainees in police custody and pre–trial detention, cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions, violation of rights under police arrest or in pre–trial detention–in particular the right to consult a lawyer and the right to communicate with the family–complaints on violation of procedural rights, cases of intimidation, violation of the right to privacy, phone taping, etc.” It expressed alarm at “the behaviour of police and other law enforcement bodies anddisproportionate violence used by security forces against peaceful demonstrators,” and voiced strong concern about “repeated cases of violence by Orthodox extremists against believers of minority religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists.” In its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department has also noted evidence of torture, police abuses and religious persecution in Georgia. But the current administration has cultivated cordial ties with Shevardnadze, facilitated in part by a close relationship between the Georgian and James Baker, once Bush Senior’s secretary of state and Shevardnadze’s diplomatic counterpart when the latter spoke for the USSR.
Geopolitics, Oil Pipelines, and
“the War on Terror”
Shevardnadze, in power since 1992, and now in his second term as president, retains few sentimental ties to the multinational union he once served. Instead, he has continuously sought to distance Georgia from Russia and to attach it instead to the U.S. camp. He contends that Russia exploits secessionist sentiments in his country–to weaken Georgia, pressure Tbilisi to remain in the CIS, and reduce the prospect that Georgia will negotiate a pipeline construction project that will funnel Caspian Sea oil to the Mediterranean bypassing Russian territory. He has plainly stated his desire to use U.S. forces as a counterweight to the Russian presence.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO have, in the post–Soviet period, sought to disengage Georgia from the CIS and Russian influence, and to solidify ties with Georgia through NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program. In 1997, Javier Solana, Secretary–General of NATO, told a Washington conference on NATO enlargement that Europe could not be fully secure without bringing the Caucasus into its security zone, and that has been the official line ever since. This mentality may be changing, as Moscow formalizes its loose affiliation with NATO. But the issue is really oil, not “security.” The principal U.S. interest in Georgia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been in its strategic position straddling the Caucasian isthmus; the oil fields underneath and bordering the Caspian Sea, principally in Azerbaijan, are thought to hold 10% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves, worth maybe $5 trillion. U.S. and British corporations have been negotiating with Georgia to route oil through its territory to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in NATO member Turkey.
Washington insiders like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lloyd Bentsen, John Sununu and Dick Cheney have all visited the region to lobby on behalf of U.S. oil companies for the construction of Georgian pipelines. (An alternative plan, promoted by French interests, involves a pipeline to the Indian Ocean via Iran. German capital, meanwhile, seems inclined to favor more Russian pipeline construction.) After Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president in 2001 and began encouraging Central Asian governments to renege on deals signed with U.S. oil companies in 1999, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and CIA Director George Tenet made emergency trips to the region. Oil is clearly the key issue in U.S.–Georgian relations, and in the inter-imperialist rivalries intensifying in the post-Cold War Caucasus.
But since September 11, the Bush administration has found another reason to focus on Georgia. The country, it tells us, has unwittingly sponsored “terrorism” by tolerating the presence of al-Qaeda (or pro-al-Qaeda groups) in the Pankisi Gorge. This canyon, 21 miles by air from the capital of Tbilisi, and adjoining the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, is itself peopled by some 15,000, mostly members of the Kist people (Muslims, closely related to Chechens, who speak both Georgian and a Chechen dialect). About 7000 Chechen refugees from Russia, mostly women and children, currently reside here. (Interestingly, Shedvardnadze until recently denied their presence.) Miscellaneous bandits and drug–traffickers have also made the gorge their home, and according to US and Russian intelligence reports, it has served as a refuge for “terrorist” Chechen rebels responsible for attacks on Russian forces in Russia itself. Moscow has long contended that the rebels are affiliated with al-Qaeda (and indeed, Chechens have been apprehended by US and other “Coalition forces” in Afghanistan). Since September 11, the US has accepted the Russian claim, while toning down censure of Russian human rights violations in the region. (Recall that Clinton once publicly chastised former President Yeltsin about the Russian bombing of civilians in Chechnya; don’t expect more of that criticism anytime soon.)
The putative terrorist presence is associated (in Georgia as in the Philippines) with Muslim communities. The Adzharians are by and large Muslims; so are the Chechens and a minority of the South Ossetians. Officially, 11% of Georgia’s population professes Islam (although some Muslim sources place the figure at 16%); and in recent years, missionaries from Saudi Arabia, preaching the Wahhabi sect version of fundamentalist Islam favored by Osama bin Laden, have been active in the country. US officials have intimated that such missions, especially in the Pankisi Gorge, serve as a cover for al-Qaeda organizing. Local officials have downplayed such charges, although according to Georgian security minister Valery Khaburzania, Arab militants involved in the Chechen uprising in Russia have used the area as a base since 2000. Meanwhile, four men have been arrested for attempting to sell enriched uranium in the Black Sea port of Batumi, in Adzharia, perhaps to “a terrorist group or country classified by the US as a rogue state” (Guardian, July 25, 2001).
U.S. officials have suggested that, since the bombing of Afghanistan began October 7, al-Qaeda forces from that country have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge. Philip Remler, U.S. charge d’affaires in Georgia, told Georgian media in February that dozens of mujahidin, in contact with Khattab, an Arab commander of Chechen rebels and contact of bin Laden, had fled there. The U.S. State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism Report released May 21 says that Georgia as well as Azerbaijan “contended with international mujahidin using Georgia as a conduit for financial and logistic support for the mujahidin and Chechen fighters” in 2001. But of course, the mujahidin veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan were largely a creation of the CIA, which recruited 30,000 Muslim “holy warriors” from the ends of the earth to bleed the U.S.’s superpower rival in the eighties. That some of them (with or without bin Laden connections), should wind up in Georgia should surprise nobody.
Is There Really an al-Qaeda Threat
in the Pankisi Gorge?
But if such is the case, top military officials seemed clueless about it in a Department of Defense briefing on February 27. General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Victoria Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs responded to reporters’ questions as follows, according to the official transcript:
Q: General, what specifically do you see as the concern in the Pankisi Gorge area? And do you believe that al Qaeda is taking weapons there? And if you can just elaborate on what that situation–
Pace: As you know, we are tracking terrorist organizations worldwide. I believe the secretary said there’s al Qaeda representation in at least 60 countries that we know of. So I would not focus in on one particular area as a particular concern. We’re trying; as best we can, to find the linkages worldwide and work with friendly governments worldwide to assist them in their own internal security problems.
Q: But why Georgia?
Pace: Georgia right now is very much–the two things I’ve told you about. One is the helicopters [UH–1 Huey helicopters provided in October], and two is working with that government to see if there is training and equipping that we can do with them that will assist them to become more proficient inside their own borders with their own security forces to take care of their own problems.
Q: Right. But what’s your terrorism concern there? Why are you concerned about it in terms of the war on terrorism?
Pace: I did not say I was concerned.
Clarke: We are concerned that the al Qaeda alone has cells in 50 or 60 countries around the world.
Q: But now wait a minute, wait a minute–If there’s no concern about terrorism in this region, what is the concern, then?
Pace: I answered the gentleman’s question about what my concern was, because I didn’t say — because I didn’t say I had a concern.
Q: I mean, you talked about the helicopters. There’s no concern about —
Pace: No, no, we are–
Q: –terrorism in that particular region?
Pace: Please. We are concerned about terrorism worldwide, and we spend an enormous amount of energy trying to track the linkages with al-Qaeda and the other terrorist networks worldwide. I cannot get into specifics of what we know about terrorist networks in specific countries. That would be inappropriate for me to do from this stand. Clearly anywhere there are terrorists in the world, we are concerned. But I cannot quantify that for you from this platform.
Q: Do you believe it’s possible that members of al Qaeda have gone to the region? And is there any link between Chechnya and al Qaeda?
Pace: It is possible, and that is possible.
Q: Well, then wait a minute. Could you elaborate on that —- That’s a great soundbite.
Pace: I cannot.
Q: Until recently, Shevardnadze denied that there were any Chechens on his soil, and as I understood it, U.S. officials believed approximately the same thing. What has changed your mind? How recently has your mind been changed? I mean is there anything you can give us? I mean, you make it sound like Georgia’s just another country, like England. But you happen to be sending helicopters there.
Clarke: I’ll try two things. One, we have had a military-to-military relationship and ongoing activities with Georgia well before September 11th. Secondly, 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. But going beyond that saying there have been some connections is not appropriate.
Q: You just said there were some connections, didn’t you? I mean–I don’t mean to confuse–
Clarke: That’s what I’m saying. We–it’s not appropriate for us to go into any great detail about what we know. But we have said repeatedly, it is important to go after the terrorists wherever they are. Al-Qaeda alone has cells in 50 or 60 countries around the world. And there have been–where there is information on some connections. Beyond that, we’re just not prepared to go.
Most Georgians, for their part, seem as little concerned about al-Qaeda terrorist threats as (the apparently poorly coached and flustered) General Pace. An opinion poll conducted by the Georgian Opinion Research Business International (GORBI), published February 28, showed that only 8.9 percent of respondents believe that terrorists from Afghanistan are residing in the Pankisi area, while 44 percent believe that high-ranking Georgian officials are involved in criminal activities in the gorge (Eurasia Insight, May 24)! Some officials echo the popular skepticism. Otar Peterashvili, the agent in charge of surveillance of the Pankisi Gorge for six years, told Cox News Service March 25, “We haven’t noticed an influx of foreigners since the war in Afghanistan began. We believe that the few people that are here aren’t looking to stay in Georgia, but are on their way to someplace else, probably Chechnya.” Khaburzania stated in April that while people “connected, maybe not directly, but indirectly, with terrorist organizations like al Qaeda” had been in the gorge for two years, they came from Chechnya, not Afghanistan: “There was no influx after September.”
Georgian Defense Minister Tevzadze told reporters, following a meeting with his U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld May 7, that while he could not rule out that some al–Qaeda fighters might be hiding in the gorge, “for me personally, it is very difficult to believe in that, because to come from Afghanistan to that part of Georgia, they need to [cross] at least six or seven countries.” Zakto Kinkladze, a member of the Georgian parliament representing the Akhmeta region (including Pankisi Gorge) stated that only five or six Arabs remained in the Pankisi Gorge; most, he declared, had left after U.S. interest in the area became apparent late last year. The Washington Post (April 28) quoted the administrator of Duisi, the largest village in Pankisi, as saying that Arabs had financed a new brick mosque, set up a health clinic, and taught children to read and write Arabic; they were “peaceful people, not connected with any terrorism.” On March 20, Altangil Turkiashvili, regional police chief in the town of Akhmeta, near Duisi, told the Guardian, “We haven’t seen a single international terrorist here,” but only “some Wahhabites” who had come to build mosques.
Some have suggested that such statements merely reflect the hesitation of local authorities to tackle a serious problem. The Boston Globe reported March 2 that “the U.S. is pressuring [Georgia] to act, [but] Georgian officials are clearly reluctant to stir up armed militants in an area thick with civilians and just 150 miles from the capital.” But as of early March, Time Magazine reported that not only Georgian officials, but U.S. officials as well, believed there were only “about a dozen Arab extremists based in the area, believed to be long–time volunteers with a militant Chechen faction (rather than stragglers from Afghanistan).” For some reason Washington’s estimate rose to “10-80” by mid-March, when U.S. authorities alleged that some of them had arrived in the area recently. This “came as something of a surprise” to Defense Minister David Tevzadze, according to Time, but on May 21, Khaburdzania stated that up to 100 Arab and 700 Chechen fighters were hiding in the gorge (Civil Georgia online magazine, May 22). Despite these mounting (and possibly contrived) figures, Georgian officials, according to the March 19 Los Angeles Times, continued to “play down any serious or immediate terrorist threat emanating from the Pankisi Gorge.”
The “Train and Equip” Program and
On November 5, Shevardnadze met President Bush in the White House, and agreed to a plan to send U.S. troops to train Georgians to (at least ostensibly) fight al-Qaeda-linked forces in the Pankisi Gorge. (Before the month was out, both President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen also visited the White House agreed to similar aid packages involving US forces assigned to “train” local forces in “anti-terrorism.”) Some sort of military assistance package had been discussed well before September 11; Elmer Guy White, Eurasian branch head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that “Train and Equip” was “a natural expansion of the ongoing security cooperation between Georgia and United States.” In October, a 40-man U.S. “assessment team” had been sent to Georgia to plan the deployment of U.S. forces to train 2000 of Georgia’s best soldiers. Shevardnadze called this military presence “a very important factor for strengthening and developing Georgian statehood.”
In late February, the U.S. announced that about 200 Special Forces would be dispatched to the Pankisi Gorge, along with eight helicopters gifted the Tbilisi regime, in the Train and Equip program. The operation, it was announced, would last twenty-one months, train 1500-2000 local troops, and cost $64 million. It produced immediate opposition from Russian legislators and from Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who said the move would complicate the security situation in the region. Many in Russia as well as Georgia expressed fears that the U.S. might launch attacks on Iraq and/or Iran from Georgian soil. (Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili has pooh-poohed such suggestions.) Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the action, and said it was “no tragedy” for Russian interests, following on the heels of U.S. military action in Central Asia and the construction of American military bases in former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan. He received, in exchange for his support, U.S. acceptance of Russia’s brutal suppression of the Chechen independence movement–as a legitimate response to “terrorism.” (Recent reports suggest that his friendship with the Bush administration might lead to Russian acceptance of the planned U.S. attack on Iraq as well.)
Russia would, in addition, like to join the U.S. and Georgia in suppressing “terrorism” in the Pankisi Gorge. The head of the Duma Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, Dmitri Ragozin, has said that the person suspected in the attack, attributed to Chechen separatists, that killed 42 on May 9 in Kaspiisk, Dagestan, is hiding in the gorge. “Russia,” he told Interfax, “has a moral right to launch anti-terrorist operation in Pankisi like the United States did after the September 11 attacks in Afghanistan.” But Georgian authorities, with U.S. encouragement, have resisted any further deployment of Russian forces in the country. Tamara Pataraia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, says, “The U.S. talk about the Pankisi Gorge is Washington’s way of telling the Russians not to enter, that Georgia will take care of it” (AP, May 19). Thus while the security threat to Russia in the gorge would seem to greatly exceed any threat to the U.S. originating in that quarter, the Russians are obliged to stand aside while their historic rival moves in to occupy former Soviet military facilities and consolidate military ties with Georgian forces who see the Russians as allies of local separatists and potential future enemies.
The first U.S. troops arrived March 13 to little fanfare, receiving scant attention in the mainstream U.S. press. Fifty Green Berets from Fort Carson, Colorado, followed on May 19; CNN announced that they would “instruct Georgian units in light infantry tactics, platoon-level offensive and defensive operations and airmobile tactics,” and teach “lifesaving, radio operation, land navigation, marksmanship, movement techniques, squad and platoon tactics, and human rights.” AP reported they were there to teach Georgians “mountain fighting, urban combat and other skills.” They were not there, mission commander Lt. Col. Robert M. Waltemeyer emphasized, to engage any “terrorists” in Georgia. “We have not now nor do we plan to survey or go near Pankisi,” he said. “My job is [only] to train and equip.” (One has to wonder, in any case, how “urban combat” training is relevant to the suppression of terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge.)
While the very preparations for “Train and Equip” probably prompted the departure of al-Qaeda elements from the area, any “terrorist” presence in the region has also been reduced by Russian and Georgian action since March. The Russians announced the death of Commander Khattab in Chechnya in April. On April 28, Georgian Interior Ministry troops captured three men identified as al-Qaeda members in the Pankisi Gorge. So why are the U.S. forces in Georgia?
The Real Goals of “Train and Equip”
The Georgian troops trained by the U.S. will probably, as planned, be sent into the gorge at some point to engage some “enemies” connected, perhaps quite tenuously, with al-Qaeda. The U.S. will decide the schedule; Tevzadze says it will occur “when my American colleagues say that my forces are ready” (Financial Times, March 22). But mainstream journalists have indicated that “Train and Equip” has other goals. The Christian Science Monitor reported March 17 that the training program had “more to do with stabilizing the still–weak former Soviet republic and furthering a NATO foothold in the Caucasus than in directly enlisting Georgian forces in the US–led antiterrorism campaign.” These U.S. objectives dovetail with those of the Shevardnadze regime; on March 22, Julie Guyot of MSNBC reported that Tbilisi sought to use U.S. troops as a counterweight to Russian influence in the country. “Whether or not Taliban–trained fighters are in the Pankisi,” she wrote, “the hope here is that the U.S. military will succeed in strengthening Georgia’s domestic security and stability by ridding the Gorge of its criminal element, and more importantly by shifting the balance of power to Tbilisi from Moscow.” Georgi Khutsishvili, director of Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict and Negotiation, noted, “American military advisers are not going to help us fight corruption. They are not going to help strengthen law and order. They are only going to help Shevardnadze consolidate his power” (Washington Times, March 25).
But, again: it’s all about oil. The Los Angeles Times reported March 19: “[Georgian officials] see the U.S. program as designed to avert possible future threats, to prop up the weak and corrupt Georgian state in a region of U.S. oil interests and to strengthen America’s foothold in the Caucasus.” Kakha Katcitadze, a senior advisor to the Georgian government, stresses the oil pipeline issue. He told The Observer in mid–May that the situation in the gorge did not, in fact, create “vital dangers for Georgia There are some problems in Pankisi, but I think it is mostly a social issue. I am not so worried about it. Anti–terrorism is not the only reason for the relationship between the United States and Georgia. Georgia is also the shortest route between the [oil reserves] of the Caspian Sea and Turkey.” The Observer (May 12), also citing Katcitadze, matter-of-factly noted this most fundamental element: “American training helps protect the pipeline — and its steady supply of oil to Western cars. BP recently sent a risk analyst to the area to explore opportunities for expansion. ‘The pipelines will of course benefit from the military presence,’ said a BP spokeswoman. ‘It is in British interests that the pipeline works. BP is a major sponsor,’ Katcitadze said. ‘The British military has been giving the Georgian army English language courses, for years, he added.'”
“Train and Equip” is ostensibly designed to enhance Georgia’s security from “terrorism.” The less advertised but more crucial goal is to produce the optimal environment for Anglo–American corporate interests, particular those of the oil companies. Key to both is the cozy relationship between Washington and Eduard Shevardnadze. That connection is unlikely to improve the lot of Georgia’s people; Abkhazians and other ethnic minorities have particular reason to worry. “That Georgia brings in military units from one or another country,” Abkhazian leader Anri Dzhergenia told a reporter, “that is its own business. But when this is done to solve our dispute, then we see this very negatively” (Reuters, March 19). The Chechens of Duisi interviewed by U.S. reporters are described as “unfriendly;” suspicious, like the Abkhazians, that U.S. forces will be used against them (Time, April 1).
In conclusion, “Train and Equip,” or the Georgia chapter in the “war on terrorism,” seems likely to augment the power of a corrupt dictator; prepare his forces to launch campaigns not only in the Pankisi Gorge but in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and elsewhere; enhance Georgia’s ties with NATO and pave the way for a long–term U.S. military presence; strengthen the hands of those promoting the Baku–Ceyhan pipeline; irritate the Russian legislature and military, if not President Putin; and complicate the security situation in a highly unstable region. Even if, in the near future, it results in the establishment of firm state authority in Pankisi, and the apprehension or annihilation of a few Arabs or Chechens with some sort of link to al–Qaeda, it is unlikely to reduce the level of terror in the world, which for the most part emanates from other, more familiar, venues.
Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program
He can be reached at: email@example.com