TCS Daily

Georgia On My Mind

By Dominic Basulto - October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

The Bush Administration continues to espouse a black-and-white view of the world in the expanding war against terror. This may make it easier to rouse support within the U.S. for the war on Iraq, but it is also creating the potential for dangerous instability in relations with putative partners in the war against terror, such as Russia and China.

After all, President Bush continues to remind us that a country is either good or evil, that you are either with us or against us. But what if countries that are "with us" are actually simultaneously "against us"? A good case of this geopolitical conundrum is Russia's increasingly aggressive posture against the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

On September 12, Russia filed an official letter with the U.N. Security Council (employing language cribbed from Bush's decision to attack Afghanistan) that cited the need to conduct anti-terrorist operations in the Pankisi Gorge area of Georgia in the interest of self-defense. Russian president Putin claims that rebels linked to Al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups are being harbored by Georgia in the no-man's land bordering Russia and that Georgia has not clamped down on international terrorist activity.

The U.S. White House argues just as emphatically that this is a simple tit-for-tat (Iraq for Georgia) that could lead to further instability in Central Asia and even the Middle East. In fact, on September 16, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial calling Putin's argument for launching a military operation against Georgia fundamentally flawed. After all, Georgia has a pro-Western orientation and is led by the one-time reformer Eduard Shevardnadze; in this context, a Russian military operation in Georgia would appear to be nothing more than the result of pent-up aggression from the break-up of the Soviet empire.

Yet, considered from the Russian perspective, the decision to conduct military operations in Georgia look surprisingly similar to the U.S. justification for launching attacks against Afghanistan - and to pursue Al-Qaeda fighters fleeing the country to regroup in Pakistan.

  • The Russian military apparatus has already produced proof - from photographs, satellite imagery, and counterintelligence agents active in Georgia - that Chechen rebels are active in the Pankisi Gorge region. In short, Chechen rebels attempting to flee the Russian military in Grozny and other hot spots in the Russian Caucasus are re-forming in Georgia. In much the same way that Al-Qaeda rebels fled Afghanistan through the porous Pakistani border, Chechen terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda appear to be infiltrating the Russian-Georgian border.

  • Georgian president Shevardnadze has been thrust into an uncomfortable position: he needs to stand up to Russia and the threat of military aggression on nationalist terms, but also has privately conceded that terrorist formations may be taking advantage of porous borders to take shelter in Georgia. Moreover, it was the same Shevardnadze who accepted the presence of U.S. military advisors earlier in 2002 - ostensibly on the grounds that terrorists could pose a problem for Georgia at some point. Similarly, Pakistani leaders faced a moral dilemma - and possible political uprising - by acceding to the U.S. war on terror.

  • President Putin claims that the terrorists in Georgia are the same as those who carried out the September 11 attacks. This gives him greater moral authority to prosecute the Russian war on terror without being dragged into the messy political question of whether armed combatants in Chechnya are "freedom fighters" or "terrorists." Putin is not arguing for a full-scale military operation against Georgia - in fact, he has offered to cooperate with Georgia on cracking down on terrorist activity through heavy air raids and ground attacks carried out by special operations forces.

Nor is Russia the only case of a country using the U.S. war on terror to accomplish ulterior political goals. China, India, and Israel have all used the context of the war on terror to label long-time enemies as terrorists. After all, one man's "liberation army" is another man's "terrorist cell." A lesson to be learned, no doubt, is that the world can not be easily divided into black and white - and more disturbingly, that most countries view military activity as the only viable option for solving geopolitical questions. The recent example involving Russia and Georgia is but the latest evidence that a U.S. attack of Iraq - while politically feasible and militarily expedient - could involve a devil's bargain with countries such as Russia and China that are ostensibly our partners in the war against terror.



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