As anticipated (see the Monitor, February 18) the United States and Georgia are taking the next logical step, after having announced that international terrorists are, after all, hiding in the Pankisi Gorge. That next step is to give Georgian forces the capability to operate in Pankisi, before Russian forces bludgeon their way in and spread their war from Chechnya into Georgia.
On February 27, Pentagon officials let it be known that a decision has been made to deploy up to 200 U.S. Special Forces troops to Georgia on a train-and-equip mission. This will be the first American military deployment in the South Caucasus since the region’s countries became independent a decade ago. In recent years, U.S. and other Western military personnel went in and out of Georgia on various assessment visits and small-scale training programs, and also for exercises including a large-scale one last year. There were, however, no deployments.
When this deployment materializes, Georgia will become the third country, after Afghanistan and the Philippines, in which U.S. forces are inserted for a role in combat situations. By the same token, Georgia becomes the first post-Soviet country to which U.S. troops are deployed for such a role, albeit circumscribed (see below). By contrast, U.S. forces deployed to Central Asia are not meant to participate in military operations within those countries.
According to Pentagon officials, planning for this mission follows the lines of the U.S. operation currently underway in the Philippines. In any combat situation in Georgia, U.S. soldiers would accompany Georgian troops, and would act in key advisory and intelligence-providing roles, but would be barred from direct combat, unless they are themselves attacked, in which case they are authorized to engage in combat.
The U.S. instructors, many among them Green Berets, will work with Georgia’ s rapid deployment brigade, a fledgling unit that, for now, lacks any serious intervention capability. The program to develop that brigade has been underway since last year, in the context of Georgia’s military reform program, supervised by the U.S. European Command which is headquartered near Stuttgart, Germany. Last October in Washington, President Eduard Shevardnadze discussed an acceleration of that program with Vice President Richard Cheney and other U.S. officials. Last December, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Georgia and checked progress on that program.
The Pankisi situation has lent the program added urgency, and may well shift its emphasis somewhat or sharpen its focus toward antiterrorist combat. The focus is now on training and equipping several high-readiness battalions. Earlier this month, a forty-strong U.S. military team including special force officers discreetly visited Georgia to assess the country’s immediate security needs and prepare a U.S. assistance plan. Last week, the prominent Georgian politicians Zurab Zhvania, Mikheil Saakashvili and Revaz Adamia–a pro-Western team, preparing for the post-Shevardnadze period–returned from a visit to Washington intimating that U.S. help was on its way.
The U.S. mission is supposed to be under full steam in about a month. Nevertheless, yesterday’s flurry of announcements–informal though officially authorized–comes not a moment too soon. It follows a barrage of Russian threats to intervene militarily in Georgia–whether unilaterally or “jointly” with Georgian troops–using, inter alia, the argument that Osama bin Laden himself might conceivably be hiding and operating in Pankisi, and that such a possibility in any case “cannot be disproved.” With the Russian foreign affairs and defense ministers using such arguments repeatedly, Moscow’s pressure tactics against Georgia may be said to have reached both a new high and a new low.
In Tbilisi, the February 25 suicide of Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sajaia could well be seen as a symptom of demoralization at the top under the extreme pressure. The cumulative significance of these developments, apparently, helped precipitate the announcements in Washington, and may well justify a decision to have some American boots on the ground in Georgia within days. A few analysts had, perhaps prematurely, reported last week a secret deployment of the first U.S. soldiers to Georgia. While the mission’s purpose and planning are purely antiterrorist, and its political justification is formulated in terms of the grand antiterrorism coalition, the realities of Russia-Georgia relations are such that the American deployment extends a protective hand over Georgia. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher implied that much in summing up Washington’s responses to Moscow about the Pankisi situation: “This situation is best dealt with through cooperation among the United States and Georgia, so that Georgia would have better control over the area.”
The observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), deployed since December 2000 on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border in the Chechen sector, was a first response to Russian threats to intervene against putative terrorists inside Georgia. That OSCE deployment, too, had the character of an interposition move, albeit by unarmed personnel, and helped defuse the pressure on Georgia for a while by certifying that no Chechen or other putative terrorists were moving across the border. But the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and the war’s aftermath changed the terms of debate entirely.
Aleksei Arbatov gave an instant analysis of that change as seen from Moscow: “Because Georgia does not want to give Russia an opportunity to eliminate the terrorists [in Pankisi], the United States has a pretext for taking the operation into its hands,” the Yabloko politician and leading policy analyst said yesterday. The announced American deployment, he went on, responds also to “Georgia’s desire to have close links with the United States…. In the [South] Caucasus as in Central Asia, Russia faces a choice: either Islamic terrorists gaining strength unchecked, or an American political and military presence beginning to build up. Russia, currently unable on its own to eradicate the terrorist hot spots, has only one choice in the matter.”
Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov went on television to criticize the U.S. move: “A possible U.S. military deployment to Georgia would further aggravate an already difficult situation. Russia has repeatedly proposed to Tbilisi to join forces and stamp out the terrorist threat. We reaffirm our readiness to render all necessary assistance to the friendly Georgian people in the antiterrorist fight. Washington is well aware of our position.” This Russian position statement corroborates Boucher’s hint at the differences between Moscow and Washington (see above). For his part, Duma International Affairs Committee chairman Dmitry Rogozin threatened to retaliate against Georgia by having the Duma “recognize Abkhazia’s sovereignty.” He confidently anticipated that “Abkhazia will be angry.” By contrast, Rogozin’s counterpart committee chairman in the Federation Council, Mikhail Margelov, saw “nothing wrong if the Americans help Georgian police and special forces to establish law and order in Pankisi.”
On Rogozin’s cue, the Abkhaz would-be prime minister Anri Jergenia declared that Abkhazia would now seek Russian recognition of Abkhazia’s sovereignty under Russian guarantees. In a similar vein, South Ossetia’s recently elected, unrecognized “president” Eduard Kokoev–a citizen and long-time resident of Russia–declared that South Ossetia now reserves the right to request the deployment of Russian forces–above and beyond the Russian “peacekeeping” battalion already there–to South Ossetia. Ironically, Abkhazia had all along complained about “terrorists” raiding Abkhazia from Pankisi, and would be hard put to retract its claims now when the U.S. addresses that very problem. Kokoev, as a new leader, does not labor under such restraints. He simply declared yesterday that “there were no international terrorists in Pankisi…. This is just a pretext for the deployment of American instructors to Georgia.” These statements have little to do with the problem of terrorism as such, but have much to do with Moscow’s use of Abkhazia and South Ossetia these past ten years to punish Georgia.
In Tbilisi, the pro-Moscow vice chairman of parliament and Socialist Party leader Vahtang Rcheulishvili charged that Shevardnadze through his pro-Western policy was forfeiting Russian support on the Abkhazia problem. For their part, Shevardnadze and Georgia in general lost all illusions on that account years ago, and never had illusions about the motivations and implications of a Russian military operation inside Georgia proper (American Forces Press Service, Western news agencies, Prime-News, Interfax, ORT and RTR televisions, February 27; Debka File, February 23; see the Monitor, December 7, 2001, January 30, February 6, 18, 27, 2002).
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