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Celeste Wallander Interview - 2002-03-07


MR. BORGIDA:
Now to another front in the campaign against terrorism, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where U.S. forces are now helping local forces there. And joining us here in our studio, Celeste Wallander, Director of the Russia/Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much for joining us today.

The challenge of the U.S. forces in Georgia, the numbers of U.S. troops there, give us kind of the overview of what their mission is and how many are involved, please.

MS. WALLANDER:
U.S. trainers have been in Georgia for several months, in association with sending military transport helicopters that the United States is providing Georgia. So they have been there for a while. It's anywhere from seven to 20 trainers.

What we have seen in the last few days and the last week is the decision to send between 100 and 200 American advisors and trainers to deal with another mission. The helicopters will help Georgian troops get in and out of the Pankisi Gorge, which is where these terrorists and others -- refugees, Chechen fighters -- are located. The trainers are there to help with the counterterrorist missions, and they are not themselves going to go into the Pankisi Gorge, but they are going to train a force of 1,200 to 2,000 Georgian troops on how to deal with these missions.

MR. BORGIDA:
I am delighted you mentioned the Pankisi Gorge because, from what I've read about it, it sounds like something out of the Wild Wild West in American history, a very rough and dangerous place. Who is in there?

MS. WALLANDER:
There are Georgian citizens in there and there are Chechen refugees who were escaping the Russian war in Chechnya. There are also Chechen fighters who have been using it as a refuge, to get away from Russian troops and regroup, including regroup for some of their operations. And there have also been credible reports of al?Qaida personnel, including Chechens who are associated with al-Qaida personnel, in there -- probably just a handful, but still, nonetheless, a presence.

MR. BORGIDA:
Ms. Wallander, what has been the official Russian view of this? It seemed initially they were not real happy about it, but now it seems like they're okay. Is that a fair description?

MS. WALLANDER:
Well, for some time the Russian Government has been trying to convince the United States and other governments to take this problem seriously, of terrorists in Pankisi Gorge. And it seems like they were caught by surprise and they were a little more successful than they anticipated with the U.S. decision to take this threat seriously and to cope with it. And we did hear some early voices of Russian officials, including the Foreign Minister, criticizing the decision and warning that it could be destabilizing. But then we heard from President Putin, who said that he welcomes any country in getting involved in dealing with the problem of terrorists in that region. And that is now the official Russian position.

MR. BORGIDA:
For many Americans, particularly those as old as I am, the Vietnam conflict always comes to mind when you are talking about sending troops anywhere. And in this context in Georgia, is that a relevant parallel at all? Are you afraid that this is a slippery slope that will lead to mission creep and the commitment of more U.S. forces?

MS. WALLANDER:
There is always that risk. There is always the risk that defining the mission as assisting in counterterrorism is a large task, as we are seeing in Afghanistan, the fighting continues. Right now the mission is pretty well defined; it's to train Georgian troops to be able to better cope with the problem. But it is something that has to be paid attention to, thought about, and discussed, to make sure that the objectives are clear and therefore you don't get that kind of mission creep.

MR. BORGIDA:
Do you think U.S. military planners are going to be trying to keep U.S. troops out of harm's way in this particular mission?

MS. WALLANDER:
I think right now the concern isn't so much keeping U.S. troops out of harm's way as it is keeping them out of the area of combat operations so that we can keep up a good relationship of cooperation, not only with the Georgian Government but also with the Russians.

Russian support for an American presence in this region is very important. They have the intelligence. They have the presence. And we want to be able to cooperate with them.

MR. BORGIDA:
The views of Celeste Wallander, of the Russia/Eurasia Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a long title. Thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

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