EDWARDSVILLE, ILL. — America's antiterror focus has shifted to the Pankisi Gorge on the border between the Republic of Georgia and Chechnya. Two weeks ago, America's war on terror took a dramatic turn when two US military planes landed in the Georgian capital of Tiblisi carrying counterterrorism and logistics specialists. Problems in this region present a genuine threat to global security, and their resolution requires US leadership. But in this second stage of its campaign against terror, the United States would be wise to avoid the appearance of acting alone.
The Pankisi region has been beyond Tiblisi's control for years, but tensions escalated after 1999, when conflict resumed in Chechnya. As the Gorge was flooded with new waves of Chechen refugees, it also became a staging area for militants fighting Russian troops across the border. Soon it became a center for criminal activities. Two Spanish businessmen, an Italian sports star, and international relief workers were kidnapped, along with local Georgians, including priests and policemen. Georgian citizens began taking Chechen hostages to exchange for their captive relatives.
Still, Tiblisi rejected Moscow's proposals for joint military action. The situation shifted late last month, when reports confirmed that dozens of Afghan fighters have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, supporting Moscow's long-standing claims that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have been active in Chechnya. Russian assertions that Osama bin Laden is in the Gorge have been taken less seriously, particularly by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Having long courted a NATO presence, Mr. Shevardnadze is taking an increasingly bold approach toward rebuffing Russian officials while encouraging the US to lead a counterterror operation. Washington has much to gain for several reasons.
First, Georgia could become an important strategic outpost for the US, not only because of its proximity to hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia, but also because it forms a key link in a chain of US military bases that now encircle Russia.
Second, US troops would be positioned to protect an important petroleum route that runs through Georgia from Caspian oil fields to Western markets. Taken together with new opportunities for an alternative route through Afghanistan and Pakistan, this could freeze current rivals, such as Russia and China, out of Caspian competition. This may account for Washington's concerns about a joint Russian-American operation in the Pankisi Gorge.
Moreover, American officials have consistently condemned the brutality of Russian troops toward Chechen civilians. Since American strategy in Afghanistan required the separation of militants from civilians, Washington may wish to avoid entanglement with Russian tactics in an area brimming with refugees.
The stated US mission centers on the training of Georgian troops, but the Georgian military is unlikely to succeed without a US combat role, requiring the deployment of special forces and additional US troops. An American strategy similar to that in Afghanistan may prove successful, but before the shooting starts, it's best to consider what the US also stands to lose.
America is testing its Russian support. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been a strong US ally against terrorism, and has voiced support for the US mission in Georgia. Yet some Russian generals and politicians have balked at having American troops in the Caucasus. With a base in Georgia, a complete US military encirclement of Russia could be useful if relations become confrontational, but those same bases could become a source of confrontation. Action in the Caucasus is unlikely to go as smoothly as it did in Afghanistan. And aspirations to control Caspian oil reserves could backfire. The region is rife with instability, and US action could set off sparks.
While Caucasian Muslims generally condemn terrorist attacks on the US and agree that America must respond, they have been critical of American actions in Kuwait, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Many have feared that the US would treat the separatist war in Chechnya like that in Kosovo in order to intervene in the Caucasus, and some have accused the US of causing the war in Chechnya to achieve this result. However unrealistic these fears may be, they will feed on American action in Georgia.
Still, action must be taken if the Pankisi Gorge is not to follow Afghanistan as a terrorist base. Russia and America have a common interest in cleaning up the region. Ending Pankisi militancy could contribute to regional stability and help end the Chechen war. Cooperation will prove necessary on both sides of the Chechen border. And a US-Russian operation could help Moscow understand the importance of distinguishing militants from civilians.
Prior to action in Afghanistan, American officials devoted considerable attention to multinational cooperation. As the US prepares for the next step in the campaign against terrorism, it should not forsake a broader strategy.
Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, who conducts research in the Caucasus.