Americans at war in the Caucasus

Georgia: U.S. troops find a role to play in Russia's bloody assault on Chechnya -- and on the Chechens.

March 01, 2002

The decision to send American soldiers to Georgia, ostensibly to help President Eduard A. Shevardnadze's government in its struggle with terrorism, is provocative, risky and wrong-headed. Worse, it's being presented by all sides as something that it's not.

The stated goal is to train Georgian soldiers so they can fight "tens" of terrorist al-Qaida fighters in the Pankisi Gorge, which abuts Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. But Georgia doesn't care about Pankisi -- it cares about its own secessionists on the other side of the country. It's unlikely Washington cares about Pankisi, either -- U.S. interests in Georgia begin and end with the pipeline that will carry Caspian Sea oil west to the developed world.

As for the Russians, politicians and generals are fulminating about U.S. penetration in the Caucasus, but comments coming from the men around President Vladimir Putin suggest they are quite aware of what they stand to gain. With Americans helping to bottle up rebel fighters along the Chechen border, it should be all the easier for Russian forces to continue pulverizing that unfortunate republic.

Did we say rebel fighters? Didn't we mean terrorists? Well, it depends on what we think this fight is about.

Chechnya is a Muslim republic that suffered horribly in its first attempt to win independence from Russia, in the 1994-1996 war. From the ashes of that conflict emerged a frighteningly brutal class of bandit gang leaders, some of whom felt inspired by Islamic extremist ideology and all of whom prospered chiefly by kidnapping. In 1999, Russia went to war again, inflicting more terrible punishment on the Chechens but finding itself unable to stamp out all resistance.

The Russians claimed that Chechen fighters were taking refuge across the border in the Pankisi Gorge. Georgia denied it. Moscow insisted on sending its troops in; Georgia always said no. Russia tried to pressure Mr. Shevardnadze by stirring up trouble in other parts of Georgia with their own separatist inclinations.

For two years, Washington condemned Moscow's war on Chechnya. It was half-hearted, but at least it didn't pretend that murder wasn't murder. Now, all that has changed. Now, it's about terrorism and al-Qaida.

Evidently, links do exist between Chechen fighters and al-Qaida -- or did exist, anyway. Evidently, there are some fighters in Pankisi. Georgia can no longer deny it, but, understandably reluctant to allow the Russians in, it has found a perfect solution in the American G.I.

A successful U.S. military effort in Georgia would indeed promote a certain sort of stability. If the Chechens are contained, the Russians will be less likely to try to sow chaos in Georgia, and if a friendly Georgia remains intact, that will allow the free flow of oil from the Caspian -- as the spokesman for Georgia's defense ministry pointed out on Wednesday.

Al-Qaida seems to be missing from this picture, but look at who's included. Mr. Shevardnadze presides over a breathtakingly corrupt regime, in a country where the only constant theme is treachery. Mr. Putin scolds his generals, but his army seems more intent on looting and rape than on victory. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch issued its latest report on the ways in which Russian forces have arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed civilians.

Our gallant allies in Moscow have stubbed out most of the remnants of a free and critical press. And now, disgracefully, the Bush administration is lending a hand. This week, the U.S.-backed Radio Liberty, which broadcasts programs throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, reversed itself and decided not to begin a Chechen-language service. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it would be "counterproductive."

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