By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
VASIANI AIR BASE, GEORGIA, MARCH 14As daylight leaks from the sky, roughly 500 Georgian troops from the 16th Mountain Battalion wait in this wasted plateau of sunburned grass and Soviet-era debris. They check their weapons and shift with anticipation. A vintage Huey swoops diagonally overhead, the grind of its propeller echoing among the hills.
On a nearby escarpment, four silhouettedsoldiers ready a pair of mortar cannons; once darkness finally descends, they fire flares3,500 candlepower in strengththat bathe the valley in a hazy orange glow. The troops below race forward. Bullets streak toward metal targets set upon a rise. The soldiers have two minutes to take their objective. Then shadows slip back over the field.
Georgia's military is unaccustomed to training for night warfare. This exercise, organized by American marines, is an attempt to change that. It's part of a two-year, $64 million U.S. program called Georgia Train and Equip, or GTEP. According to Washington, GTEP is about building a bulwark against a new frontier in the war on terror.
"Part One: Turkish Fishermen Threaten a Blockade"
"Part Two: The Blood of Massacred Turkish Kurds Holds a Fearful Lesson for Those Who Would Flee Iraq"
"Part Three: Pipeline Project Splits Georgian Village Into Winners and Losers"
The purported location of that frontier is not far from the Vasiani Air Base: the now notorious Pankisi Gorge, a wide valley that cuts into the Caucasus Mountains. Following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration carved the world into places it deemed friendly or unfriendly to Al Qaeda operatives, and Pankisi fell on the wrong side. The gorge has a history of lawlessness, its fate interwoven with the destruction and warfare that has racked neighboring Chechnya for the past decade.
Spring in Pankisi brings mud and fog and the fear that thawing mountain passes will once again allow Chechen warlords, jihadis, criminal gangs, and international terrorists to flood into the north of the valley from Russian territory. Georgia has just begun what officials here vaunt as "phase three" in an effort to sweep the area of militants, and to gird against the seasonal upsurge in gunmen. Last week, the State Security Ministry dug up a large cache of weapons buried on a popular route between the gorge and the Russian border.
As the United States now unleashes its military might on Baghdad, this forgotten outpost stands as a reminder that the global fight to dismantle Osama bin Laden's terrorist network is still slowly unfolding. It also illustrates how that fight, cast by George W. Bush as a "monumental struggle of good versus evil," has eluded not just moral clarity, but, at times, clarity of any kind. What really lurks in Pankisi is something of a mystery. Even more perplexing, perhaps, is the motivation behind Georgia Train and Equip, and the role the program may ultimately play here.
When GTEP was first announced, the U.S. Defense Department said it was to implement "President Bush's decision to respond to the Government of Georgia's request for assistance to enhance its counterterrorism capabilities and address the situation in the Pankisi Gorge." Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed this last year when he told senators, "What we're trying to do is train Georgian troops so they can do a better job of dealing with that threat in the gorge." Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe the banner of counterterrorism flying over America's military presence here is, at least in part, smart packaging for aims far less lofty than eliminating evil.
One of those aims almost certainly involves oil. In a time when Middle East reserves are threatened by war and regional instability, large petroleum repositories in the Caspian Sea have boosted the strategic value of these former Soviet backwaters. The Pankisi Gorge is less than 30 miles from the biggest single Caspian oil export route, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which extends over 1,000 miles from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Construction on the pipeline will begin in several weeks. When it is completed, it will pump a massive flow of oil into the world economy for 40 years, at one point turning out as much as 1 million barrels per day. "We're making sure no one sees the U.S. as the guarantor of pipeline security," one top-level State Department official told the Voice. "But if there is a supportive role we can play, we'll do it."
Last month, Azerbaijan's foreign minister announced that American and European Union assistance would be used to secure the pipeline. Asked whether U.S.-trained troops would be deployed for the oil route's protection, Georgia's national security adviser, Tedo Japaridze, told the Voice, "Why not?" Buried only one meter underground, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan's miles of steel tubing will be a critical artery for Caspian reservesin total, roughly 4 percent of the world's oil. Backers of the project say Georgia's chronic instability poses the biggest security risk. The country suffers from unresolved wars, unfathomable levels of corruption, unpredictable politics, and poor relations with the regional heavyweight, Russia. Thieves have attempted to siphon oil from existing pipelines, sometimes causing minor explosions. The Georgian armed forces are in shambles.
Well before 9-11, analysts were strategizing how to send U.S. military advisers to the region. In February 2001, members of the RAND Corporation released a brief arguing that protection of the pipeline would require Georgia and Azerbaijan to upgrade their beleaguered militaries, most likely by enhancing a handful of battalions each. RAND, a private think tank based in Santa Monica and funded by the U.S. government to work in Georgia, has advised Georgian policy specialists and state officials on, among other things, a restructuring of the country's National Security Council. According to the think tank's 2001 brief, "The West may be forced to deliver the necessary training and equipping requirements since the Caucasian militaries seemed unprepared for pipeline security."