Driven by its crusade to extinguish global terrorism, the U.S. since September 11 has taken on one security commitment after another in the ex-Soviet Union. To establish good lines into Afghanistan, the U.S. first moved troops into Uzbekistan and then decided to build a second base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Now, the U.S. is expanding its presence in the strife-torn Caucasus republics. In mid-March, the U.S. will send some 200 military trainers to Georgia to help 1,200 troops combat al Qaeda-linked militants in a mountain gorge on Georgia's border with Russia's breakaway province of Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is acquiescing to this latest U.S. move in his backyard partly because it legitimizes his campaign against what he calls Chechen "terrorists."
Helping the Georgians is likely to be only the beginning of U.S. military involvement in the Caucasus, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited in mid-December. Recently, the White House quietly lifted decade-old sanctions preventing military aid to Azerbaijan, Georgia's oil-rich neighbor on the Caspian Sea. A Pentagon delegation plans to visit Baku in late March to discuss security cooperation and possibly assistance to Azerbaijan's army. The U.S. is also expected to expand anti-terrorism aid to Azerbaijan's rival, Armenia. "America is establishing a new political influence in the Caucasus," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser in the Carter Administration.
But this widening U.S. engagement carries a multitude of risks, few of which seem to be getting seriously debated in Washington at a time when all politicians are under pressure to back President Bush's war. Officials say U.S. forces won't be directly involved in fighting militants holed up in the Pankisi Gorge near Georgia's border with Chechnya. Yet analysts fear the U.S. could be drawn in if Georgia's ragtag army falters. That could entangle America in the Chechen war. "If the Georgians don't maintain peace in the Pankisi Gorge, [Putin] can ask the U.S. to come in," says Martha Brill Olcott, a Caucasus expert at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. There's also the risk that the U.S. could be sucked into Azerbaijan's local struggle with Iran. Tehran is disputing Azeri claims to Caspian oil reserves and protests U.S. engagements in ex-Soviet republics as expansionist.
Of course, there are potential strategic gains for the U.S., and not only on the anti-terrorism front. U.S. policymakers and oil companies have long argued for moves to assure security for a proposed oil pipeline from Baku through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. This project, planned for completion in 2005, has taken on new importance because Arab oil supplies look shakier post-September 11. The Caspian's 110 billion barrels in oil reserves rival Iraq's.
Still, as military trainers head to Georgia, the big question is whether the U.S. is taking on too much. The Bush Administration is now combating terrorism on fronts in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Even the globe's sole superpower needs to be careful not to overreach. By Paul Starobin in Moscow, with Paul Magnusson in Washington EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady