By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A series of informal interviews suggests that a vast majority of the Interior Ministry forces engaged in GTEP are from or near the Abkhazia province, where ethnic cleansing in the 1990s pushed more than 200,000 refugees into Georgia proper. Three Interior forces graduates from GTEP who were manning a sleepy checkpoint in the Pankisi Gorge said they had no doubts about where they would ultimately put their skills to use. "Abkhaziathat's what we were preparing for," said one. The trio remembered how, along with 400 or so of their compatriots from the army, they screamed "beautiful Abkhazia" every morning while running their paces.
The Interior forces play only a small role in the training program. But the State Department recognizes that abuse of GTEP could be a problem. In Senate testimony last year, Colin Powell said the U.S. has "made it clear that we don't want to see that improved capability used against Abkhazia." Over the past year, the Bush administration has taken a greater interest in resolving the dispute peacefullyperhaps because Washington recognizes that sewing Georgia back together again is the best way to ensure its much coveted "east-west energy corridor" does not fall to pieces. It could also temper the rampant drug and arms smuggling that has taken hold in these provinces, and improve the lives of many. This way, some experts argue, the pipeline could have a strong positive effect .
But with the war in Iraq draining so many of America's resources, it is an open question whether the U.S. will stay involved enough to avoid inadvertently re-triggering conflict. And then there's the problem of leaving well-armed, cohesive battalions in the corrupt political vacuum that is Georgia. Elections here are on the horizon, and few expect them to be fair or free. President Eduard Shevardnadze, who has held on to power by sheer force of wit and will, is serving his final term; the change his exit from office will bring to Georgia is nearly unknowable. "In the future, what role will the GTEP soldiers play?" asked security analyst Devdariani. "What if the government routinely fails to pay them? What will they do with so many trained military personnel?"
"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"
Perhaps more than anywhere else in Georgia, the Pankisi Gorge is a place where questions stretch beyond answers. On a cold and gray afternoon, the gorge greets visitors with both a warning and outstretched arms. Five impoverished villages huddle in a wedge of grassland that extends seven miles into the forested foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The hills tower over each other, rolling toward Chechnya until they ascend into a range of snow-dusted peaks. The wide mouth of the valley beckons entrance. But a military checkpointan old army-green trailer; chipped concrete roadblocks; a one-person tent standing amid a pile of sandbags and several twitchy soldiershints of danger in the distance.
The road to the interior is scarred, at points nearly impassable. This journalist was permitted entry only with an armed convoy, three vehicles and 12 soldiers, at his side at all times. Georgian (not so) undercover agents made their presence known in crowds, and the conducting of candid interviews impossible. In Duisi, the main settlement, a gathering of Chechen refugees and their ethnic cousins, the Kists, insisted unsurprisingly that no terrorists or contraband could be found in Pankisi. One quiet Chechen boy, roughly 15 years old and wearing a hooded parka, stood near a newly built mosque. He kept his hands in his pockets. A flash of honesty and defiance lit his sky blue eyes; he murmured, "Yes, but if something needed to be hidden here, it could be done."
What could be hidden in Pankisi, and by whom and to what end, have been very difficult to answer. A spectrum of militants have held out here, with overlapping agendas. The Georgian government acknowledges that some 50 or 60 criminals (possibly gunrunners and money traffickers) narrowly associated with Chechen warlords are on the lam here. This month, one of these shot up an Interior Ministry forces patrol car, an event that, in part, triggered the recent "third phase" crackdown on the region. Georgian officials now admit that international mujahideenincluding Arab fighters, among otherswho signed up to assist Chechens once made the gorge their home. One or two stragglers may remain, says Nika Laliashvili, a spokesperson for the State Security Ministry, but beyond that, the gorge is secure.
Of course, when an armada of soldiers is required to escort a journalist, one must ask how good that guarantee really is. Perhaps more importantly, the convoy points to another problem: spin. Georgia, Russia, and the United States have all worked to distort the facts here to the benefit of their own regional aspirations. The Georgian governmentto the degree that such a collective entity existswants to show it is doing something to clean the valley up. This will, no doubt, ease pressure from Russia, but if officials here go so far as to say the job is done, the U.S. will no longer have a sellable reason for training the Georgian military. "I'm not of the opinion that Pankisi has ever been much of a threat," said Richard Reeve, a Georgia specialist at Jane's Information Group. "I think the Georgian government does want to look busy, and to some extent, the Americans were fooled into taking Pankisi for this great nest of international terrorismbut whether they wanted to be fooled is another matter."