VASIANI AIR BASE, GEORGIA, MARCH 14—As 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 flares—3,500 candlepower in strength—that 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.
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 reserves—in 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.”
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.”
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)
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.
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. “Abkhazia—that’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 peacefully—perhaps 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?”
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 checkpoint—an old army-green trailer; chipped concrete roadblocks; a one-person tent standing amid a pile of sandbags and several twitchy soldiers—hints 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 mujahideen—including Arab fighters, among others—who 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 government—to the degree that such a collective entity exists—wants 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 terrorism—but whether they wanted to be fooled is another matter.”
This does not mean operatives “linked” to Al Qaeda have never passed through. According to Time magazine, a top Al Qaeda militant named Saif al Islam el Masry was transferred from here to the United States last year. But other reports cite different names and draw different, sometimes contradictory connections. Laliashvili says he has no information about el Masry—never even heard of him—and an FBI official told the Voice there are no unclassified records of anyone from Georgia being turned over. Meanwhile, Colin Powell has made reference to two other Al Qaeda-linked operatives—Abu ‘Atiya and Abu Hafs—who were in the gorge but are currently at large. If these militants formed a single cell, no one here seems to know. “We don’t have any Al Qaeda specialists at the ministry,” said Laliashvili.
Perhaps not knowing is the greatest danger. Georgian officials insist that whoever was connected with Al Qaeda in Pankisi left in August, when fighters in the gorge were contacted, both openly and through back channels, and told to leave. Still, the U.S. government maintains that the Al Qaeda threat in Georgia is real. On September 11, a satellite phone call was placed from Afghanistan to an area near Duisi, Laliashvili said. Perhaps that is why four Pentagon Arab-language specialists set up a listening station on the GTEP base in Krtsanisi last year. As U.S. soldiers trained Georgian commandos in marksmanship, tactical maneuvering, and American military doctrine, “they quietly listened, on a range of frequencies, 24 hours a day, for a period of several months,” an inside source told the Voice. “But they found nothing, so they went home.”
Research assistance: Mosi Secret