American forces are showing up in Manas, Kyrgyzstan; Kulob and Kurgan-Tobe, Tajikistan; Basilan, Philippines; and other strange places. Pankisi Gorge, Georgia, may be added to the list.
The gorge, on the border with Chechnya, is a topographically nasty region made much nastier by its inhabitants, an unwholesome gumbo of Chechen refugees, drug dealers and kidnappers, native ethnic Chechens (Kists), Russian “peacekeepers,” Georgian security forces and UN observers.
The American chargé d’affaires in Georgia, in an interview last week with a Georgian newspaper, said “several dozen” Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are hiding out in the gorge. He offered United States assistance to clean up “the most criminalized part of Georgia,” which he said is “a threat to Georgia itself.” The United States, he said, is willing to help Georgia’s defense ministry develop its antiterrorist capabilities and might provide other help as well.
This was excellent news for President Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgian forces have not been able to establish control in the Pankisi, and the Russians, who from time to time send planes on deniable missions to bomb the Chechens in the gorge are as great a threat to Georgia’s sovereignty as the Chechens they are after. Having a U.S. option strengthens Shevardnadze in every way and could give him a boost against his pro-Moscow domestic political opponents.