U.S., NATO aim to calm Caucasus turbulence

U.S., NATO aim to calm Caucasus turbulence
BY Brian Whitmore, Boston Globe

Star Tribune
Last update: May 20, 2004 at 4:55 PM

May 21, 2004CAUCASUS0521

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY — U.S. Army Col. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, U.S. armed forces
worldwide have been taking steps to redirect their resources to fight
the war on terrorism more effectively.

Officials at the U.S. European Command say that because 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, and in North Africa, U.S. 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 Gen. Charles Wald, deputy commander of
U.S. 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,
U.S. 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
U.S. initiatives in the region. From May 2002 until last month,
U.S. 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-Qaida in the country, most notably the Pankisi Gorge region
near Chechnya.

U.S. 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.

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
for terrorists.

Longtime NATO allies like Britain, Germany, and Turkey — as well as
new alliance members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — are contributing
with assistance programs in the region.

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.

U.S. 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.