It's the Oil Pipeline, Stupid
Deployment of U.S. Special Operations forces to the Caucasus state of Georgia would help enforce a Washington pipeline policy aimed at neutralizing Russian influence in oil-rich Central Asia.
This is the unreported side of the U.S. proposal, which is also about pursuing al Qaeda fighters around the globe. Al Qaeda veterans have reportedly linked up with Chechen rebels on the Georgia-Chechen border.
Though Georgia and Chechnya themselves contain limited oil and gas reserves, their territory is essential to both existing and proposed pipelines to carry oil and gas out of the Caspian basin west to Turkey and Europe.
The existing Russian pipeline, from Baku to Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, passes through Chechnya. U.S. oil companies, which have had difficulty dealing with the Russians, have proposed two alternative pipeline routes that pass through Georgia and Armenia. These pipelines would allow U.S. companies, and not Russian ones, to control oil and pipeline prices.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 into the Commonwealth of Independent States (which Georgia refused to join), there followed a decade of Russian meddling in the domestic concerns of all of the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the case of Georgia, Russian troops were stationed there as "peacekeepers." Their excuse was to deal with rebel forces.
In both of the Chechnya Wars, the Russians faced an opposition whose troops and leaders had been trained in Afghanistan. Most of these troops were trained at camps controlled by the Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose camps were financed for years by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Hekmatyar fell out of favor with his backers in the 1990s, but the camps survived and became those of al Qaeda.
As government backing disappeared, the camps became financed partly by drug networks through Chechnya and Georgia, networks that some have linked first to Hekmatyar and later to bin Laden. The al Qaeda refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge is a local center for these drug networks, which have allegedly corrupted local law enforcement officials.
The Russian campaign served to maintain Russian control of all pipelines bringing oil and gas out of the Caspian basin. It seems clear that in the current decade the Bush administration is willing to send troops, from Georgia to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to neutralize Russian influence. The United States has already stationed 1,000 troops in Uzbekistan, and 300 close to the Chinese border in Kyrgyzstan, with more scheduled to arrive.
This apparent military strategy complements the explicit U.S. energy strategy, which since the mid-1990s has focused on pipelines either south through Afghanistan or west through the Caucasus to gain access to Central Asian petroleum without depending on Russian pipelines.
Since the collapse in 1998 of California oil company Unocal's efforts to establish a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, the focus of U.S. government strategy has been on a proposed gas pipeline -- a project of the Pipeline Solutions Group, a U.S.-led consortium of oil companies -- to be built across the Caspian, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Enron, with U.S. government money, conducted a feasibility study for this pipeline.
The backup of U.S. pipeline politics with military support began under President Clinton, but received a boost with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to the region last December.
Vice-President Dick Cheney, as former CEO of the oil-services company Halliburton, is himself a veteran of the U.S. oil presence in Central Asia and has often spoken in public about the importance of the Caspian basin. He met last spring with many of the companies whose oil investments in the Caspian basin are now languishing. One wonders if Bush's current military strategy was discussed at Cheney's Energy Task Force meetings, by the U.S. oil companies whose current investments in Central Asia are stymied by the exorbitant rates charged by Russian pipelines.
Supporters of the U.S. presence on Russia's borders argue that it will benefit both the region and the United States by increasing the new nations' autonomy from Russia and facilitating the export their of oil and gas.
But there are big risks involved. Georgia, although less corrupt and oppressive than the dictatorships of Central Asia, has nonetheless been criticized this year by Human Rights Watch for its "crippling levels of corruption" and human rights abuses. Nearly all of these states are unstable and face armed opposition. The influx of U.S. military aid and corporate investment tends, in the eyes of observers like Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, to benefit only those at the top. These elites increase oppression while flaunting their Mercedes, and thus feed the alienation of the public.
What is the risk of sending few hundred Special Forces to train the troops of an unpopular regime? Older Americans will remember that that is how America became embroiled in Vietnam.
Peter Dale Scott is a Professor of English at University of California, Berkeley and a former Canadian diplomat.