According to officials in Georgia, US military advisors will soon arrive in the country to help train Georgian security forces in anti-terrorism tactics. The announcement is indicative of mounting concern in the Bush administration that Islamic militants are exploiting Georgia's chronic instability to plot new terrorist attacks. Russian officials have criticized the intended deployment, saying that introducing US advisors into the Caucasus could further destabilize the region.
US officials have stressed that American military personnel would serve in Georgia in an advisory capacity. Meanwhile, a Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman denied reports that US and German troops had already arrived in Georgia, the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency reported February 27. Georgian officials also dismissed suggestions that US soldiers would directly participate in operations in the Pankisi area.
Georgia does not dispute reports that Chechen militants and other Islamic radical elements have found refuge in the northern Pankisi Gorge region, an area that borders the renegade Russian region of Chechnya. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Rampant lawlessness in the Pankisi area has long been a source of tension in Georgian-Russian relations. Moscow wants Georgia to step up security in the border area. Attempts by Tbilisi to reassert its authority over the area have so far proven unsuccessful. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The deterioration of order in the Pankisi area is connected not only to the failure of Georgian state institutions, but also to Russia's brutal campaign in Chechnya. The Pankisi Gorge has provided shelter for thousands of Chechen refugees. Chechen combatants have also utilized the area for rest and re-supply efforts.
The United States began paying closer attention to the Pankisi situation following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In mid February, the top US diplomat in Georgia, Philip Remler, announced that Islamic radicals with links to Osama bin Laden were operating in the Pankisi Gorge. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Chechen representative in Georgia, Kizhri Aldamov, welcomed the pending arrival of US advisors. While emphatically denying that any al Qaeda loyalists were in the Pankisi Gorge, Aldamov said the US soldiers could help put a stop to aggressive Russian military action in the region.
Officials in Tbilisi have repeatedly accused Russia of carrying out military provocations along the Georgian border. OSCE Border Monitoring Operations reports have documented several incursions in recent months. In late October, for example, OSCE observers saw unidentified jets and helicopters flying "in the vicinity of the international border." The OSCE noted a similar incident on January 22.
A senior Russian expert, speaking to the Interfax news agency, predicted that the United States could end up regretting its decision to dispatch military advisors to Georgia. "If they allow themselves to be dragged into Georgia's developments
Jeffrey Silverman is a senior writer for the Georgian Times, an English-language newspaper in Tbilisi.