Georgia, a member of the former Soviet Union, is in Moscow’s own back yard. So when America’s military links with Georgia were first announced, senior Russian officials were outraged by the prospect of the forces of their former cold war adversary being so close. But now that the object of the military pact is to drive out the ‘Islamic terrorists’ in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi region, adjacent to Chechnya, the public squabbling has vanished. Putin has welcomed the project, and so has Georgia’s president, Edvard Shevardnadze.
The plan provides for the arrival in the Caucasian republic of 200 American advisers to train and equip the Georgian army in ‘anti-terrorist operations’. The first instructors will start arriving in the second half of March and will train up to 2,000 soldiers. That is the story, but really the plan is open-ended, as Georgian and American officials admit in private. Several Georgian officials have said that they would like the American forces to help them to throw the ‘Islamic terrorists’ out of the Pankisi Gorge, and some US officials have conceded that such action is a possibility.
The Americans have already given Georgia ten helicopters, and are set to supply light weapons, vehicles and communications gear. They are also offering US$64 million to cover the costs of training Georgian troops. These details were given on March 1 by an American official who was eager to create the impression that Washington was not providing heavy equipment such as tanks and warplanes. But, in defending his decision to approach the Americans, Shevardnadze said that discussions between Washington and Tbilisi to establish military links began eight years ago, and that the Americans had helped the Georgian army before. ‘The US has already helped us to build border units,’ he said; ‘now they are helping in creating anti-terrorist squads. No other country can provide this aid.’
These ‘anti-terrorist squads’ will aim primarily at driving the Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Gorge, and the Chechen fighters and ‘al-Qaeda militants’ allegedly hiding there, back into Chechnya, where Russian troops await them. The Russians have already triedCand failedC to persuade Georgia to allow them to bomb the gorge to eliminate the Chechens. But they managed to get Shevardnadze to ‘persuade’ the Chechens to leave.
The gorge is certainly a lawless place, and no one really knows who is there, nor in what numbers. But according to one of several reports recently published in the western press, the Pankisi is home to ‘a mixture of local Georgians, Georgian-speaking Chechens (known as Kists) who have been there since the 19th century, and about 7,000 refugees from the war in Chechenya and maybe some foreign friends.’ The report, which appeared in the London Economist on March 2, rightly underplays the number of ‘foreign friends’, if any, in the Pankisi gorge: even the small number of Chechen fighters it estimates are there is exaggerated. The number of fighters putting up such fierce resistance to 86,000 Russian troops in Chechnya is estimated at 1,600; if hundreds of them were in the Pankisi gorge, then the resistance in Chechnya would be far less impressive.
The Georgians, Americans and Russians have all said that there are al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Pankisi who have fled Afghanistan; they are supposed to be hiding there to regroup and plan terrorist operations in Western cities. It is this absurd allegation that supposedly justifies the bombing and elimination of civilians, many of them refugees driven out of their country by Russian soldiers and ignored by the ‘international community’. Since 1995 human-rights groups and aid-agencies have been publishing reports and informing international organisations about the extent of the crimes being committed against the Chechen people.
The reports describe a ‘disturbing and repeated pattern of violence’ which ‘reveals a policy aimed at destroying a people through bombing, sending them into exile, enslaving those who cannot flee, and executions’, the latest report by Medecins Sans Frontiers explains. According to the report, published in newspapers on March 4, from December 1994 to August 1996 about 100,000 died, and since 1999 ‘tens of thousands have died, while hundreds upon hundreds have been tortured or have disappeared.’
And now Uncle Sam turns up to inflict a similar ordeal on the Chechen civilians in Georgia, or drive them back into Chechnya. It is apparently enough for him to claim that al-Qaeda fighters are hiding among them, and to announce that there are human rights violations in Chechnya. The US state department’s annual report on human rights, also issued on March 4, criticises Russia for its record in Chechnya, where ‘the federal security forces demonstrated little respect for basic human rights’. This is a ridiculous understatement. But the Americans believe that it is enough to deflect accusations that the US is targeting only Muslims in its ‘war against terrorism’.
The annual report criticises China for its human rights violations in East Turkestan, which is mostly Muslim. Washington publicly calls both Chinese Muslims and Chechens ‘terrorists and separatists who are not entitled to the right of self-determination’.
But the Chechens are not the only Muslim people in the Caucasus who will be adversely affected by the US-Georgian conspiracy. The Abkhazians will not be able to defy the Georgian forces as successfully as they have done so far if the Americans train them effectively. This explains why they have decided that they will again apply to Moscow for an association agreement, which will enable them to join the Russian federation while retaining a high degree of autonomy.
In fact, all Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus will be disadvantaged by the US ‘war on terrorism’ in the area, as its object is to prevent cooperation among Muslims to resist oppression.
Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.