US military, NATO join forces to stabilize Caucasus
By Brian Whitmore, Globe Correspondent | May 19, 2004
Boston Globe, MA
May 19 2004
GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany — US Army Colonel Michael Anderson
has Georgia on his mind. He spends a lot of time thinking about
Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well.
Plagued by ethnic conflicts, political instability, organized crime,
and porous borders, the volatile South Caucasus region has long been
viewed by Western officials as a hotbed of chaos and of instability
in Europe’s backyard.
The US military and key NATO allies are now laying the groundwork for
an unprecedented engagement in the region that will include coordinated
military and humanitarian assistance, education, and training aimed
at eventually bringing these troubled nations and their armed forces
into Europe’s mainstream.
“We want these nations to ultimately be able to stand on their own
and to be secure and stable states,” said Anderson, the US military’s
European Command point man for policy in the Caucasus.
The emerging initiative in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan is part
of a focus on what military commanders call “an arc of instability”
ranging from the Caucasus through the Middle East to the Gulf of
Guinea in West Africa. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, US armed
forces worldwide have been taking steps to redirect their resources
to fight the war on terrorism more effectively.
Officials at the US European Command say that since they do not
anticipate a major war in their area of responsibility in the near
future, they are focusing on preventing conflicts on and beyond the
continent’s hinterlands before they become full-blown security crises.
In the South Caucasus, as well as in North Africa, US military
officials say they are seeking to use “the prudent application of
soft power” — gaining access and influence in these regions by
exposing nations there to Western thinking and values — to advance
the interests of the United States and its allies.
“We are applying a regional, cooperative approach . . . helping
nations help themselves,” Air Force General Charles Wald, deputy
commander of US forces in Europe, said in a statement.
At a two-day conference this month at the George C. Marshall European
Center for Security Studies in this southern German Alpine town, US
defense officials met with their counterparts from key NATO allies to
coordinate their efforts to assist a defense overhaul in the region.
Officials from Georgia and Armenia also attended. Officials from
Azerbaijan were invited, but did not attend amid the continuing
animosity with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabach.
By helping stabilize the South Caucasus and assisting in improvements
in the region’s armed forces, officials say, the initiative contributes
to the war against terrorism.
“Terrorists are looking for areas of instability where they can play
the East-West cultural card, and the Caucasus is a region that is ripe
for that,” a senior British defense official said on the condition
of anonymity. “If we don’t turn our attention to it, they will.”
The new emphasis on the Caucasus seeks to build on recent
US initiatives in the region. From May 2002 until last month, US
soldiers trained four Georgian light-infantry battalions and a tank
company under a $64 million program called the Georgia Train and Equip
Program. The program aimed to professionalize Georgia’s armed forces
and to equip them to root out suspected terrorists linked to Al Qaeda
in the country, most notably the Pankisi Gorge region near Chechnya.
US military officials have since identified illicit weapons, narcotics,
and human-trafficking across the region’s porous frontiers as other key
security concerns. Easy access to smuggling routes empowers organized
crime groups, compromises the authority of central governments,
and destabilizes the region, the officials say.
“Who do we want running these countries, stable democratic authorities
or criminal elements?” US Army Lieutenant Colonel Albert Zaccor
said. “We’re trying to foster the kind of countries we can be
To help eliminate what military officials and strategists call
“ungoverned areas” in the region, the US military and its European
allies seek to help train the region’s border guards. A new American
program called the Caspian Guard Initiative also intends to help
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan improve air, ground, and maritime security
in the Caspian Sea Basin.
Protecting the flow of oil out of the region is also a top security
concern for the United States and its allies. A major pipeline running
from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Tblisi, Georgia, to Ceyhan, Turkey,
is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Analysts say
the pipeline will reduce the West’s energy dependence on the Middle
East and the Persian Gulf, but could also become a potential target
Longtime NATO allies like Britain, Germany, and Turkey — as well
as new alliance members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — are also
contributing with assistance programs in the region.
Germany is helping to train noncommissioned officers in the region,
Britain has a civilian adviser assisting the Georgian Defense Ministry
and junior officer-training programs in the region, and Turkey is
offering to help coordinate security for the oil pipeline.
The former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which
have reformed their militaries sufficiently to join NATO this year,
say they are now prepared to help Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan
do the same.
The Baltic nations are also offering to help train border guards.
Nikoloz Laliashvili, head of defense policy and NATO integration for
Georgia’s Defense Ministry, said it is his country’s “aspiration”
to follow in the footsteps of the three Baltic countries. “They have
strong experience and advice to offer,” Laliashvili said.
US and other Western officials concede privately that Georgia, Armenia,
and Azerbaijan have made uneven progress. Georgia, which tossed out
its Soviet-era leaders in favor of the pro-Western government of
Mikhail Saakashvili in a peaceful revolution in November, has shown
the most serious commitment to an overhaul, the officials say.
Earlier this month, Georgia peacefully seized control of the rebel
province of Ajaria, in the country’s southwest corner, although
Saakashvili is still struggling to bring other breakaway regions like
Abkhazia and South Ossetia under Tblisi’s control.
Other ethnic and political issues, most notably Armenia’s and
Azerbaijan’s longstanding and bitter dispute over the Nagorno Karabach
region, remain obstacles to progress.
Nevertheless, analysts say the optimism generated by Georgia’s
democratic “Rose Revolution” in November, coupled with the new Western
engagement in the region, has created a window of opportunity. “With
the rise of a new generation of politicians coming into power, the
possibilities for change are greater than ever before,” said Robert
Parsons, director of Radio Free Europe’s Georgia service.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress