The 65-kilometer long Pankisi Gorge, a forbidding rock and forest defile in the Caucasus Mountains on the Georgian-Chechen border, threatens to become the next household name in America’s world war on terror, after Afghanistan’s Tora Bora complex.
In that inaccessible region, some 2,000 Chechens and ex-Afghan al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are reported to be sheltering – even Osama bin Laden is rumored to be hiding out in the Pankisi Gorge.
Pentagon officials, who ask to remain anonymous, have said 100-200 US Special Forces troops had been sent to the former Soviet republic of Georgia – as first reported on February 21 in DEBKA-Net-Weekly (Issue No. 50) – to provide training for Georgian special forces to fight rebels linked to al-Qaeda. This will be the Pentagon’s second large-scale post-September 11 counter-terror training program after the Philippines
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, the United States, by turning Georgia into its next advance base for fighting terrorists, risks becoming mired in the impenetrable local intrigues traditionally racking this region.
If they are there to hunt Osama bin Laden, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources strongly doubt the rumors he is sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge. According to the intelligence information reaching Moscow from Chechnya, bin Laden and his men are more likely to have gone to ground in one of three places: The Pashtun semi-autonomous tribal areas in western Pakistan; the Pamir area in northern Pakistan, bordering on China to the east and Tajikistan to the north; or Arabian peninsula desert areas on the Persian Gulf’s western shores.
As to Iraq, sources in Washington are playing down the American Special Forces who recently entered the north, describing them as “a small group of diplomats, intelligence operatives and US officials that go there occasionally”.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources doubt if this description does justice to the rush of events unfolding in both Georgia and Iraq.
According to our sources, US military personnel have been streaming into Vaziani air base, about 15 km (nine miles) from the capital, Tbilisi, since Thursday, February 21. They are accompanied by a flow of sophisticated communications and electronic equipment for the US air force, as well as vehicles, weapons and ammunition for US Special Forces.
Vaziani is Georgia’s largest and most sophisticated air base. It can handle fighter planes, heavy bombers and large transport aircraft. A suburb of Tbilisi, some of its houses are being turned into living quarters for the incoming US troops, guarded by American Special Forces and elite units of the Georgian presidential guard.
Thursday, February 28, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (a former Soviet foreign minister) was due in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, for a summit of the CIS, the Confederation of (former Soviet) Independent States, including Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, will also be there.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow and Tbilisi report that Putin and Shevardnadze will take advantage of their proximity at the summit to coordinate their military and political tactics, in the light of the US military landing in Georgia.
Both leaders are walking a political tightrope.
In Moscow, Putin had to overcome resistance in the Russian High Command to the evacuation of the Russian GRVZ Transcaucasus force from its headquarters in Tbilisi, ahead of the US troops’ arrival in the Georgian capital. Putin called on the support of the Russian chief of staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin, to force the pullback through.
Friction between Putin and factions of the Russian military has been building up since he handed over to the United States the use of strategic assets in Central Asia and the Caucasian at the outset of the Afghanistan War. The withdrawal of Russian forces from Moscow’s own doorstep in Georgia has added to those factions’ dismay, compounded by their suspicions of Shevarnadze’s serpentine motives in ridding Georgia of Moscow’s military presence. These generals believe the Georgian president, whom they call the Gray Fox, is secretly encouraging Chechen rebels in order to weaken Russia’s military presence on Georgia’s frontiers- especially in Chechnya, Abkhazia and Turkmenistan.
In mid-February, when Shevardnadze knew US forces were coming to Tbilisi, these Russian officers contend he opened the door for Chechen insurgents hiding in the Pankisi Gorge to skip with their al-Qaeda comrades over to the Kodori Gorge on the Abkhazia-Georgia border. That move is seen as the opening shot in his plan to remove the Russian Army peacekeepers restraining the Georgians from attacking and reclaiming the breakaway province of Abkhazia and igniting another ethnic war.
Shevardnadze’s plan, as it appears to some members of the Russian High Command, will move into its next stage when he arranges for the incoming US Special Forces to receive intelligence reports and maps revealing the transfer of the wanted Chechen and al Qaeda terrorists to the Kodori Gorge. This will send the Americans haring off from the Pankisi Gorge to the frontier between Georgia and Abkhazia. There, they will fight the terrorists together with the Russians troops positioned on the Georgia-Abkhaz border.
With both armies otherwise engaged, the Georgians will quietly advance into Abkhazia, while making a show of supporting the Americans.
This maneuver, if it pans out, could leave the Americans trapped against their will in an intractable Caucasian conflict.
Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov was thinking along those lines when he said in an interview over the state-controlled ORT TV Wednesday, February 27, that the US military presence in Georgia could “further aggravate the already complicated situation” in the region.
Ivanov went on to note that Moscow’s concern about US military personnel is well known in Washington and reiterated Russia’s proposal for a joint Russian-Georgian security operation to root out militants. This proposal, which the Georgians have rejected in the past, was, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow, to have been aired with Washington’s blessing at the Putin-Shevardnadze talks in Alma Alta.
Nervousness over the way Russian control is being eroded in the Caucasian is conspicuous in Moscow – whether motivated by genuine fears of the region’s descent into chaos and civil war, or by self-interest on the part of officers with business dealings with local mafias, who are loath to find Americans landing on their turf. Shevardnadze is also suspected of undercover dealings with certain of the Chechen leaders hiding in the Pankisi Gorge.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly notes that none of the dissenting voices come from circles close to President Putin, his defense minister or his chief of staff, all of whom are solidly behind the Bush administration’s Caucasian plans.
But fears for the security of the US advance force in Vaziani cannot be taken lightly since the “suicide” of Nugzar Sadjaya, secretary of the Georgian national security council, on Tuesday, February 25. The Georgian interior ministry cynically announced that Sadiaya had killed himself by firing two shots to the head (sic). It is a fact that Tbilisi and most other Georgian cities are controlled by coalitions of armed gangs and intelligence agencies, who all sell their services to the highest bidder.
One senior Georgian source remarked to DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “If the Americans thought Kandahar was a tinderbox, wait till they find out about Tbilisi.”
The United States will therefore have no option but to pour large numbers of personnel into Georgia, the better to protect their men and equipment.
In northern Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Saddam Hussein, in a surprise response to the small-scale US landing there two weeks ago, pulled all Iraqi army and intelligence units out of the region.
Military planners at the Pentagon and CIA officers in charge of the advance US contingent were mystified until they discovered who had come to replace the Iraqi soldiers and agents: hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives from Afghanistan, moved in from their first wayside stations in Iran and Syria. The Shiite Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a strong opponent of the US presence in Afghanistan and Karzai’s interim government, came in with them through Iran. Last week, he was spotted with a detachment of his followers in northern Iraq, where al Qaeda is popular among the local Muslim radicals. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources also disclose that the ex-Afghanistan terrorists brought with them several dozen special Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence agents – all with Saddam’s apparent blessing.