The forthcoming deployment of some 200 US ìmilitary advisersî to Georgia, in Russiaís back yard, is ostensibly to put some backbone into beleaguered President Eduard Shevardnadzeís military forces, to help him restore his governmentís authority over the lawless Pankisi Gorge on the border with war-torn Chechnya northeast of the capital Tblisi, and to root out Islamic fighters who use it as a rear area.
The US effort to open yet another front in George W. Bushís war against terror, on the premise that the mountainous Pankisi region has become a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda fighters, seems modest enough. But it is adding yet another dimension to the increasingly complex geopolitical situation in the Caucasus and Central Asia, both highly explosive regions in flux.
But there is another reason why the US wants to stabilize Georgia, no easy task given its weak and corrupt central government, endemic political turmoil, massive economic problems and ethnic conflicts in the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. The Americans want to build a $2.9 billion, 1,530-kilometer pipeline from the Caspian Basin oilfields in Azerbaijan to Turkeyís Mediterranean terminal at Ceyhan through Georgia, sidelining Russia and Iran and extending US (along with Israeli and Turkish) influence into the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Once dismissed as being too expensive, the Baku-Ceyhan project is now looking increasingly viable to Western oil majors in Kazakhstan. Caspian reserves could be critical to future global energy supply. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in December that Kazakhstanís crude was becoming of ìcritical importanceî in meeting Western energy needs over the next few years. This, of course, is in line with the doctrine of ìfull-spectrum dominanceî that now seems to govern US foreign policy and is manifesting itself in such treacherous regions as the Caucasus and Central Asia where the Bush administration in its current unilaterist mood is increasingly competing for influence with the Russians.
The prospect of a new bloc comprising Israel, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan - to counter the growing ties between Russia and Iran and, maybe, Armenia - is causing some consternation across the region (Turkey and Georgia signed a military cooperation agreement on Feb. 20) at a time when there is renewed friction between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Arkady Gukasyan, president of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, warned on Feb. 25 that the failing health of Azeri President Heidar Aliyev, 78, could lead to a resumption of hostilities over the enclave because a more bellicose regime could emerge if he left office.
Even here, the US is making inroads in a manner that cannot please Moscow. Earlier this year, the US agreed for the first time to provide military aid to impoverished Armenia, and Yerevanís defense minister, Serge Sarkissian, disclosed on March 1 that a US military team had discussed wider cooperation during a hush-hush visit to the Armenian capital. Armenia has been Russiaís most trustworthy military ally in the Caucasus, but the government recently began making approaches to the US and to NATO. Indeed, on Feb. 16, NATO officials gathered in Yerevan to plan alliance exercises in Georgia.
Despite President Vladimir Putinís acceptance of the US involvement in Georgia inasmuch as it will help isolate Chechen rebels, the Russian military sees it as a provocative encroachment into Moscowís traditional sphere of influence. The generals and political hard-liners, already worried about NATOís eastward expansion, clearly are not prepared to give the Americans the same leeway in Georgia as they did in allowing US forces into Central Asia after Sept. 11.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the US military mission ìcould further aggravate the situation in the region, which is already difficult.î It has also alarmed Georgiaís separatist regions, which fear they could become the target of US military aid. Abkhazian leaders have said they will now seek closer relations with Russia.
In the meantime, US and allied forces deployed in Uzbekistan (which it now transpires has had military links with Washington since 1995), Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan to fight Bushís war against terrorism are showing signs of digging in for the long haul - possibly years. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev disclosed on Feb. 13 that he had signed a renewable one-year military base lease agreement with Western forces and for an increase in coalition forces from 3,000 to 5,000. These moves and US promises of military and economic aid for these former Soviet republics do not please the Russians and the Iranians one bit.
They, and others, see this as little more than a cover for US encroachment to establish political and military domination over these Muslim states to protect the Caspian oil and gas reserves and break the Central Asian statesí economic dependence on Russia. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose country is in many ways the linchpin of the region and has provided the US with an unprecedented military foothold on former Soviet territory, is scheduled to visit Bush in Washington on March 12.
Another mooted pipeline route is through Afghanistan and Pakistani Baluchistan to the Indian Ocean. Uri Avnery, a former Mossad official and former ambassador to Tehran before the 1979 Islamic revolution, noted recently: ìLooking at the map of the large American bases created for the war, one is struck by the fact that they are identical to the route of the projected pipeline to the Indian Ocean.î The US oil giant Unocal had negotiated, discreetly, with the Taleban from 1995 until December 1998, four months after the US missile strikes against Osama bin Laden, to build a $2 billion, 890-kilometer gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. If Afghanistan can be stabilized and Pakistan, which General Pervez Musharraf has placed firmly in the US camp, does not erupt in an Islamic revolution, this route could be resurrected.
Indeed, many see it as entirely plausible - particularly as the Bush administration is top-heavy with Big Oil advocates. The Pakistani and Afghan finance ministers discussed oil and gas pipelines through their countries
in Islamabad in late February.
Iran, which wants these pipelines to run through its territory and is also critical of the US deployment in Georgia, could be troublesome in that regard, as it already is over the contentious division of the Caspian Sea with the other littoral states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Russia.
With talks over who gets what stalled yet again, Tehran declared on Feb. 20 that it planned to go ahead with Caspian oil and gas projects before demarcation has been agreed and will prevent others from exploiting what it considers its share of the sea. This can only inflame political and economic rivalries in the turbulent region in which the Americans are steadily penetrating.www.dailystar.com.lb/08_03_02/art19.htmE-mail this article