Just who is in the wild and desolate Pankisi gorge in northern Georgia, just south of Chechnya? There are Chechen rebels fighting Russia, and Chechen refugees trying to avoid the fighting. There are local Georgians and Georgian-speaking Chechens known as Kists. There are drug runners and other bandits, and police who protect them. And there are, it seems, a small number of terrorists who have fled Afghanistan.
It is these last who interest the U.S. Government, which is sending troops and combat helicopters to aid Georgians in finding them. John Colarusso, professor of anthropology at McMaster University and a longtime observer of Georgia, says the U.S. mission makes sense.
"We have to check out the Pankisi and make sure that it is not harboring al-Qaida elements or other terrorist elements, however small that number may be and whatever their relation to the Chechen secessionists may be," he said. "We cannot ignore Pankisi, and we ought to help the Georgians clean up their own territory. I think they are too weak right now to do that."
By moving into Georgia, notes the Economist magazine, the United States is stepping into a mess. It will be hard to separate the innocent from the guilty in the densely forested gorge and easy to go astray.
Professor Colarusso cautions the United States must keep in mind the broader issues of Georgian stability and mounting pressures from Moscow on this small, shaky neighbor. Above all, U.S. forces do not want to be drawn into joining Russia's war on Chechens.
At the moment, he says, relations between Chechen rebels and al-Qaida are unclear. "We cannot assume that the two in any really serious way are connected. The underlying problems that Chechnya has with Russia have nothing to do with al-Qaida," he said. "They are very old and go far, far back beyond anything that we are struggling with now."
First in Central Asia and now in Georgia, U.S. forces though small in number, are moving into territory of the former Soviet Union. The initial Russian reaction to the Georgian decision was shock.
Various officials called it a challenge to Russian security. But Russian President Vladmir Putin has taken a calmer approach, noting his country and the United States are cooperating in a war on terrorism.
Moscow has other ways of expressing disapproval. The two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are more vigorously asserting their independence and allegiance to Moscow, which protects them with 7,000 troops in Georgia. It is not as if Russian influence has receded with the approach of U.S. forces.
That means Georgia's embattled President Edward Shevardnadze remains vulnerable to his enemies. This was demonstrated in the recent death of Nugzar Sajaia, says Zeyno Baran, director of the Caucasus project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "One of Shevardnadze's most trusted allies committed suicide or what is believed to be suicide at this point," he said. "This was after a campaign of personal attacks and psychological warfare. So there has been some internal and possibly external pressure on Shevardnadze in trying to weaken him and create destabilization in the country."
That death is a grim warning to the President, says Professor Calorusso. Unfortunately, his weakness contributes to Georgia's. It is in the U.S. interest to help protect him while pursuing terrorists.