Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and the Global War Against Terrorism
Event Report, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
On April 12, the Caspian Studies Program hosted a talk by Dr. Pavel Baev, head of the Foreign and Security Policy Program at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Baev's remarks focused on the ramifications of the Bush administration's recent decision to send 200 U.S. soldiers to the Caucasus to help train the Georgian military to deal with terrorist groups in the Pankisi Gorge— a lawless region in the northeastern part of Georgia that has become a haven for criminal gangs, Chechen fighters, and terrorist elements over the last several years.
Conflict in the Caucasus: U.S., Georgian, and Russian Perspectives
Baev began his presentation by examining recent developments in the Caucasus from the American, Georgian, and Russian governments' perspectives.
The View from Washington
The United States' interest in the Caucasus derives from its concerns about threats posed by terrorist groups in the area as well as its enthusiasm for opportunities in the region's growing petroleum industry. While tThe U.S. government's interest in Caspian Sea oil and the Baku-Tbilsi-Ceyhan pipeline has increased, the campaign against terrorism has certainly moved to the top of the U.S. agenda in the Caucasus, at least in the short term.
According to Baev, U.S. policymakers concerned with international terrorism have so far focused on the problems in the Pankisi Gorge primarily in the context of the Russian-Chechen conflict. The situation in Chechnya, however, does not fit directly into the Bush administration's current campaign against the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Baev indicated that while there are certainly paramilitaries from Arab counties involved in the fighting in Chechnya, it has been difficult to establish the presence of al-Qaeda fighters on the ground in the region. But by providing counterterrorism aid to Georgia, the United States is becoming indirectly involved in the war in Chechnya, while at the same time aiming to contribute to the stabilization of internal situation in Georgia itself. Baev believes that the United States' "train and equip" mission in Georgia parallels U.S. involvement in helping to establish effective militaries in the new countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. According to Baev, the United States efforts in the Caucasus should draw from the model of its successful efforts in Croatia, which helped the government in Zagreb "win back" secessionist provinces. The experiences of training the local military in Bosnia, Baev argued, have been more mixed, which is why the deployment of SFOR continues to be necessary.
Baev explained that the two greatest problems facing the U.S. military in Georgia are the risks of overstretch and mission creep. It is already clear that the United States runs the risk of becoming overextended in its commitments to assist counterterrorism efforts in countries as varied as Georgia, Yemen, and the Philippines. "Mission creep" could also become an issue in Georgia, since the Georgian military will not be able to modernize its "elite battalions" to the point where they are able to eradicate terrorism from the Pankisi Gorge. Baev indicated that the United States might feel more compelled to become directly involved in antiterrorism operations in the Pankisi Gorge when it becomes clear that the Georgian military cannot complete this task.
The View from Tbilisi
From Tbilisi's perspective, the United States' recent announcement that it was sending counterterrorism assistance to Georgia was a most welcome decision. Baev's greatest concern, in fact, is that the leaders (as well as the people) in Georgia may see U.S. counterterrorism assistance as "the solution to all of Georgia's problems."
During the past decade, Georgia has faced significant setbacks in its attempts to promote economic growth and democratization. Despite the promise of quick recovery from the civil wars of the early 1990s, Georgia is now ruled by a weak, quasi-autocratic regime. Baev pondered whether or not U.S. antiterrorism assistance will strengthen President Eduard Shevardnadze's regime, and whether or not this is a worthwhile objective from the United States' perspective. Ultimately, Baev warned, the current round of U.S. counterterrorism aid to Georgia will do nothing to address the country's chronic corruption, stagnant economy, or lack of democratic reforms— all of which pose much more serious problems to the country than does terrorism.
The View from Moscow
Baev began his analysis of Russia's interests in the Caucasus with a discussion of the war in Chechnya. While Russia is right to identify terrorism as a significant force at work in the Pankisi Gorge and in the larger battle between Russia and Chechen militants, Baev warned that policymakers need to realize that there are still many other factors aside from terrorism that are shaping the situation in Chechnya. Russia's attempt to portray its campaign in Chechnya as a part of the international war against terrorism is a deliberate oversimplification.
Baev also mentioned that the U.S. presence in Georgia could have a dramatic negative impact on the Russian public's opinion of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Following the U.S. announcement of its decision to send troops to Georgia, Russian popular opinion about U.S.-Russian relations has sunk to its lowest level since the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo.
A Triangle of Conflicts in the Caucasus: Chechnya, Abkhazia, and the Pankisi Gorge
According to Baev, there is a significant risk that the conflict in the Pankisi region of Georgia could spillover into two other conflict zones in the Caucasus— the breakaway republics of Chechnya (Russia) and Abkhazia (Georgia). Baev stressed that it would be dangerous for the United States to get caught between these three conflicts, which could happen if it becomes a political priority for Washington to "decisively" eliminate terrorist groups from the Caucasus. The Bush administration has often remarked that it is "not in the state building business," but it is nation building— and not antiterrorism— that currently presents the greatest challenge to the countries of the Caucasus region.
In spite of the U.S. decision to send assistance to Georgia for its campaign in the Pankisi Gorge, Baev maintains that unrest in the Pankisi region is not at the top of the Georgian agenda. The government in Tbilisi is far more concerned about the situation in Abkhazia, and has been preoccupied with the situation in this breakaway republic for the past several years. Indeed, concern about the "contagion" of regional separatism is central to both Georgia's approach to Abkhazia and Russia's campaign in Chechnya. The challenges for the U.S. operation, therefore, are significantly greater than just a "mission creep" in the Pankisi Gorge. The mission also runs the risk of becoming a crucial and more permanent factor necessary for the preservation of stability in Georgia, which is threatened by both separatist forces and endemic corruption.
Q & A
During the question and answer session, Thomas Landes of the OSCE mission to Georgia asked Dr. Baev to evaluate Russian soldiers' movement into the Khodori Gorge region of Abkhazia on April 11, as well as how the downing of a UN helicopter in the Khodori Gorge in November affected the situation in the Caucasus. According to Baev, the Khodori Gorge region is a more complicated issue than the Pankisi Gorge because it is located in the contested zone between Georgia and Abkhazia, which is a greater source of instability. Baev said that the downing of the UN helicopter in the Khodori Gorge in November seemed like a provocation perpetrated by local forces on the ground. As for the recent Russian movement into the Khodori Gorge, it was most probably a local initiative colored by symbolism, rather than a part of a strategic plan.
John Grennan of the Caspian Studies Program asked whether there was a risk that the Georgian government would exaggerate the threat of terrorism within its borders in order to obtain more aid from the United States. Baev said that Georgia does have an incentive to "milk the agenda of antiterrorism" because it could provide an opportunity to ask the United States for more assistance. Baev said that it is not so much a case of Georgia inventing terrorism where it does not exist, because there is plenty of terrorism in Tbilisi related to politically-driven corruption, in addition to the terrorist groups based in the Pankisi region. It is more the case that Georgia will suddenly become much more focused on the question of terrorism in the Pankisi Gorge, when it has not really paid much attention to the region for the last several years. Kakha Khizanishvili of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy asked Dr. Baev to comment on how the U.S. deployment might affect oil interests in the region. Baev responded that while the Pankisi Gorge is not located along the route of the projected Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, oil companies will require regional leaders to demonstrate stability in order to justify foreign investment in the project. The deployment of the U.S. military to the region, Baev maintained, sends a message to U.S. investors about Washington's commitment to promoting stability in the Caucasus.
Nick Danilov of Northeastern University asked Baev to compare Russian perceptions of the U.S. deployment in Georgia to Russian reactions to the stationing of U.S. troops in Central Asia. According to Baev, the U.S. presence in Georgia strikes much more of a raw nerve among the Russian public. Since U.S. troops have been sent to Central Asia to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda cells in Afghanistan, there seems to be a compelling reason for them to be there— a reason which basically coincides with Russia's agenda on promoting stability in the region. In the case of Georgia, however, many Russians worry that American troops are being deployed to the Caucasus as part of a longer-term campaign designed to keep Russia out of the region.
In a response to a question about Turkey's role in the Caucasus, Baev explained that Turkey currently has an opportunity to raise its profile in the region. Countries in the region now perceive Turkey in much more neutral terms than they did in the early 1990s, when Ankara was seen as something of a strategic competitor, particularly by Armenia. Moscow is now more open to cooperation with Turkey in the Caucasus, and Turkey is becoming more adept at framing its involvement in the region in a way that does not offend other countries' sensibilities. Simone Ipsa-Landa of the Kennedy School asked Baev about how Russia might be able to "anchor" the Caucasus to Russia in the coming years. Baev argued that Russia will not be able to serve as the "economic engine" of the Caucasus. Consequently, Moscow is much more interested in maintaining the status quo in the region in order to justify its continued presence there. According to Baev, Russia's status quo stance often means a preference to keep certain conflicts in the Caucasus in a "frozen" status or allow them to continue.
Brenda Shaffer of the Caspian Studies Program asked whether or not Russia's "status quo" attitude toward the Caucasus contributed to its policy toward the conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh. Baev agreed with Shaffer that Russia has a great deal of ambivalence in its foreign policy aims regarding this conflict, and is not likely to place any pressure on Armenia (its traditional ally) in the near future.
David Milner of the Kennedy School asked why Russia was agreeing to allow U.S. assistance to Georgia and wondered whether Russia might be getting some sort of reward for this agreement— covert U.S. assistance to Moscow for its campaign in Chechnya, for instance. Baev said that it is very unlikely that there is any such agreement between Russia and the United States on Chechnya. He maintains that the United States realizes that Chechnya is a much more complicated political problem that will require a more comprehensive political solution.
Summary by John Grennan
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