Into the Georgian Quagmire

I wonder if the 50 or so U.S. soldiers who arrived in Georgia last weekend knew what they were stepping into. The soldiers are the latest and largest party in a U.S. "train and equip" mission worth $64 million -- about four times the annual Georgian defense budget. They are charged with training the Georgian army in counter-insurgency against suspected al-Qaida militants, who are allegedly taking refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

At first glance, this seems a very worthy and uncontroversial aim. Yet this is a messy story whose ends do not really tie up. What begins as a tale about continuing the "fight against terror" looks, on closer inspection, much more like a continuation of the United States' and Russia's unhealthy obsession with this small post-Soviet republic.

Let's begin with the Islamic fighters themselves. No one is really sure how many of them there actually are in the gorge, but according to Western diplomats several dozen "international mujahedin" fleeing Afghanistan have stopped off there, having bribed Georgian border guards to do so.

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Yet, in contrast to the mujahedin who have decamped from Afghanistan to Kashmir, these fighters do not appear to have gone to Georgia to fight a new war. They have no obvious quarrel with the regime in Tbilisi and know next to nothing of its politics. Rather, they appear to be lying low and catching their breath, as they look for somewhere else to flee to. Georgia, three border crossings away from Afghanistan via Iran and Azerbaijan, is not going to be a long-term home for al-Qaida members, most of whom are probably heading for Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

The link with the war in Chechnya is also not as strong as it seems at first glance. The Pankisi Gorge -- more of a valley actually and 30 kilometers long -- is home to a mixed population of local Georgians and Ossetians, several thousand Kists (Georgianized Chechens, whose ancestors fled Chechnya in the 19th century) and at least 6,000 Chechen refugees who escaped across the mountains since fighting resumed in Chechnya in 1999.

It is this last group, and specifically the hard core of fighters among them, that has been giving shelter to the Islamists. But this does not mean that they are pouring over the border to fight the Russians. The heavily mined Georgia-Chechnya border, under surveillance by a group of OSCE monitors, is not the transit point it was a few years ago and Moscow has been quite successful in blocking it. Only a tiny handful of extremely fanatical fighters would consider trying to cross the Caucasus range to continue the jihad against the Russians, and since the death of the Saudi-born commander Khattab in March they have even less incentive to do so.

It would also be wrong to portray the Pankisi as some kind of backstop and place of rest for Chechen fighters in between battles. The most prominent Chechen fighter in the gorge, Ruslan Gelayev, has been disowned by the government of rebel president Aslan Maskhadov on the other side of the mountains. Gelayev, say sources in Georgia, has gone native. He has become a "hired gun," willing to do dirty deeds for the right price. That is what Gelayev did last October when he led a multi-national group of fighters in an attack on the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

Gelayev, it is now fairly clear, carried out his raid on Abkhazia using the vehicles, equipment and political support of senior people in the Georgian army and security establishment. And yet many of these Georgian military men are now going to be trained by the Americans, supposedly to fight against Gelayev and his Islamist friends in the Pankisi. Strange, but true -- and the further you investigate the more curious it gets. The gorge is notorious for kidnapping -- but frequently, it has taken only a wink and a nod from the right people in Tbilisi for hostages to be released. When two Spanish businessmen taken hostage were set free last December, Georgia buzzed with rumors that crooked policemen in Tbilisi had just been waiting for the right payoff to instruct their bandit friends in the Pankisi to let the men go.

So the problems of the Pankisi Gorge are essentially criminal ones. The area is a base for drug trafficking, kidnapping and organized crime. Rather than training Georgian special forces, it might be better to sack a lot of Georgian police officials and double the salaries of rank and file policemen, to make them less susceptible to bribery.

Why then is Washington stepping into this mess? Part of the answer is the commitment to wage the war against "terror," wherever it rears its head, even on a small scale like this. A bigger reason is attached to the aura around the name "Shevardnadze."

There are many people in Washington, left over from the era of George Schultz and James Baker, who remember Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and now president of Georgia, with great fondness. As far as they were concerned he, together with Mikhail Gorbachev, made the personal breakthrough that made the end of the Cold War possible.

The trouble is that there are plenty of people in Moscow who loathe Shevardnadze for exactly the same reason. And that helps to explain why Georgia has been plagued by the most destructive side of the post Cold War relationship between Washington and Moscow. Russian generals have meddled in Abkhazia and used the continued presence of military bases to try to undermine Shevardnadze.

Old American Cold Warriors have talked up Georgia as a "strategic bulwark" against the Russians, raising unjustified hopes in the hearts of Georgian nationalists that the United States will defend them, come what will, against the evil empire to the north.

All this has very little to do with the real Georgia, which is poor, corrupt and still heavily economically dependent on Russia -- under the real Shevardnadze, a weary politician increasingly ruling without direction, who has lost most of the standing he once had among his fellow Georgians.

The U.S. troops in Georgia can play a positive role. They can raise the standards of a very unprofessional army, give guidance and introduce Western ideas.

But the flip side of their intervention could be to encourage Georgian officers and generals to keep on thumbing their nose at Russia -- or even worse, use the training they receive to try and have another push for a military solution in Abkhazia.

Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin would do well to try to rein in their hawkish advisers on Georgia -- and put more effort into helping the real country sort out its very real problems.



Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net). He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.