Reports that al Qaeda fighters, possibly including Osama bin Laden himself, have found refuge in Georgia are stoking pressure for outside military intervention. Top Russian officials are once again hinting that Moscow may feel compelled to intervene militarily to contain Islamic radicals in Georgia. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is categorically opposed to Russian intervention in the Pankisi Gorge, but he has indicated that he would consider a Georgian-US joint operation.
The top US diplomat in Georgia, Philip Remler, helped focus attention to the brewing crisis in the Pankisi with an announcement that al Qaeda fighters had infiltrated the region. Georgian leaders have not disputed Remler's assertion. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. In recent days, Russian officials have fueled concerns with speculation that bin Laden may be among those on the loose in the Pankisi Gorge - a claim that Georgian officials deny.
Since mid-January Georgian security have attempted to crack down on criminality in the Pankisi area. But the February 17 kidnapping of four Georgian police officers on duty in the region underscores the weakness of the state's authority.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov warned that Georgia's chaotic conditions warranted the launch of an immediate anti-terror offensive. If Georgia is incapable of conducting such operations, Ivanov hinted the Russian military could take matters into its own hands.
"On the one hand, it is, of course, sovereign Georgia's business," Ivanov told the Interfax news agency. "On the other, [should we really] sit and wait and see how tensions mount there and how this region is turning into a mini Chechnya, or mini Afghanistan?"
The prospect of Russian intervention clearly does not appeal to Georgian officials. Shevardnadze on February 18 described the idea of a Russian operation in the Pankisi area as "unacceptable."
At the same time, Shevardnadze announced that Tbilisi was considering a joint security operation with the United States. "As for the possibility of a future joint action with the U[nited] S[tates] special forces in the Pankisi Gorge, we haven't yet had systematic discussions on that," Shevardnadze confessed. "But, if it becomes necessary, we have been and remain ready for dialogue."
In his announcement about the presence of Islamic radicals in Georgia, Remler indicated that Washington was willing to enhance security cooperation with Georgia. The timing of his comments, some analysts believe, may have been designed to forestall a Russian military move in Georgia.
Most regional analysts and policy makers have known that the Pankisi Gorge has served as a haven for Chechen separatists and other Islamic radicals since the first Chechen war (1994-1996). The Chechen fighters and terrorists connected with Afghanistan are allied with the radical Chechen field commanders Shamil Basaev, Ruslan Gelaev and Khattab.
The Kremlin has complained for years that the Shevardnadze government has covered up the Pankisi situation. According to a March 2001 report by the popular Georgian TV channel Rustavi-2, Pankisi has become a supply base to which the Georgian Ministry of State Security has transported Turkish aid to the Chechen separatists. According to the Georgian Minister of State Security Valery Khaburdania, the radical pan-Turkist Grey Wolves were the conduit of assistance to the Chechens.
In the past, Moscow's complaints about the flow of aid to Chechens via the Pankisi did not draw any reaction from Washington. Senior officials in the US Department of State now say they are facing a dilemma on Pankisi. On the one hand, securing independence and territorial integrity of Georgia is at the top of the US agenda for the Caucasus. On the other hand, improving relations with Russia, especially concerning the conduct of anti-terrorism operations, has become a strategic priority.
According to the Georgian official, Azeri security officials tipped off Georgian authorities about the terrorist penetration. Georgian security officials announced February 9 that two foreigners with apparent ties to Khattab had been arrested.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis" (Praeger/Greenwood, 1996, 1998).