Part Four: America Builds an Army for Industry

Where the Quest for Oil Meets the War on Terror

Georgia Train and Equip, which officially began in May 2002, will prepare roughly six battalions during its two-year term. Despite the line from Washington, U.S. Marines who work as instructors here say GTEP does not include any specific counterterrorism preparation. "We're giving them basic infantry tactics," said Major Scott Campell, the senior commander at the Krtsanisi training center. Campell added that offering instruction in complex missions like hunting Al Qaeda operatives in the Pankisi Gorge is simply not part of his mandate.

"Protection of the pipeline was on the U.S. agenda long before September 11," said Jaba Devdariani, a Tbilisi-based security analyst. "If you take into account the role RAND and other conservative think tanks have played in shaping the Bush administration's policies, I don't think it is a stretch to say they probably had some influence in making GTEP a reality. Assuming that a main policy objective of the Bush administration has been to secure economic interests and oil resources, then naturally somebody was thinking about safeguarding the pipeline. Sending American troops to Georgia to do what they're doing now might not have been a possibility two years ago. But, in a way, September 11 made a far-fetched plan a reality."

Aims unclear: A Georgian soldier looks out on a firing range at the Krtsanisi military training facility.
photo: Raffi Khatchadourian
Aims unclear: A Georgian soldier looks out on a firing range at the Krtsanisi military training facility.


Editorís note: As American forces charge on Baghdad, U.S. Marines stationed in Georgia are training and equipping an army that, according to Washington, will clear the remote Pankisi Gorge of terrorists. But Raffi Khatchadourian reports, the trainees could also protect a $3 billion pipeline, soon to provide the West with a new source of oil.

"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"

Brothers in arms: The U.S. is spending $64 million preparing Georgian troops to defend their country—and perhaps an American-backed pipeline, too.
(photo: Raffi Khatchadourian)
There is more than a subtle difference between helping a remote and rickety country stay intact and training highly specialized shock troops to hunt Al Qaeda operatives, especially in a volatile place like the Caucasus. Georgia is rife with division. On a map, the country virtually crumbles into Russia. In the north, two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, operate in a combination of homegrown anarchy and Russian influence. Ajara, another region, is governed as the fief of its charismatic leader, Aslan Abashidze, who retains his own militia and refuses to pay taxes to the central government. A restive ethnic Armenian population with a weak allegiance to the state dominates the province of Samtskhe-Javakheti, which borders Armenia to the south. Meanwhile, throughout the country, Russia keeps its talons on a range of military installations—mostly legacies of the Soviet Union—from large bases to small fueling stations.

Inasmuch as the United States is helping Georgia form a cohesive state out of this mess (whether to protect the pipeline or to deny terrorists refuge makes little difference), it is digging in, becoming a regional force. And in this respect, American military presence is not unique to Georgia. Since September 11, across the Soviet Union's former southern satrapies, the United States has been abruptly positioning thousands of troops. They operate in Kyrgyzstan, out of the Manas airbase, or in Uzbekistan, at a military installation in Karshi. American soldiers may soon arrive in Tajikistan, and Pentagon planners are reported to have conducted covert talks with Kazakhstan. Washington is providing $4.4 million in military aid to Azerbaijan to help shield its "economic zone," according to the State Department, which also says the money "can be viewed as part of the fight against terrorism."

Within this strip of wild territory extending from the threshold of Europe to the deserts of western China, geopolitics and petropolitics have fused with the war on terror. "You had a whole bunch of newly independent countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and we felt that by building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline it would help preserve the independence of those countries," said Richard Morningstar, former president Bill Clinton's special adviser on Caspian Sea energy. He might have added that increased American military presence could also help to achieve that end.

But "preserving independence," that oft-repeated phrase among Western diplomats in this part of the world, is an entirely different project from fostering democracy (still an alien concept throughout much of the former Soviet Union). In the eyes of cynics, it is that small but important shade of difference that casts a hue of empire building on America's newfound military activism here.

To live in Georgia is to feel that sovereignty could fall away at any moment. The muscle of Russian power is applied here forcefully and sometimes with ill intent. Russia has assisted in making the Abkhazia conflict virtually intractable; it often meddles directly in Georgian domestic politics. Officials in Georgia enjoy pointing out that the "Pankisi panic," as it is sometimes called, is only a symptom of Russia's poorly prosecuted and bloody war in Chechnya. There is a good deal of legitimacy to this view. Frequently, it's not just militants who cross the border. Last year, Russian airplanes sliced into Georgian air space on a short bombing run; on the anniversary of September 11, President Vladimir Putin indicated (in a chilling co-option of the Bush doctrine) that he would be within his rights to invade Georgia if the Pankisi Gorge was not purged of Chechen "boyeviks." For Moscow, relinquishing the Caucasus, an imperial playground, has been wrenching—a pain felt all the more sharply as the old Soviet monopoly on natural resources disintegrates and new transnational oil projects roll by, beyond reach.

In this context, it comes as no surprise that any kind of U.S. military presence is welcome in Georgia. In fact, officials here say they have been pursuing Washington since at least 1999 for a program like GTEP. But whether American-trained soldiers will add to regional stability or embolden those who favor the use of force to solve local political problems can't yet be known. Certain people within the Georgian government appear to have considered that a platoon or two of well-trained troops might be helpful in ending one of the country's bloodstained disputes.

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