If the U.S. hopes to intercept terrorists before they check in at Logan International Airport or cruise into the port of New York, its forces must meet them where they live--or where they have temporarily huddled after fleeing Afghanistan. The newest additions to the battlefield, announced last week, are Yemen and the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia. As is already happening in the Philippines, American money, equipment and personnel will flow to these troubled nations in an effort to help their forces root out al-Qaeda operatives, U.S. officials say. These new campaigns, however, will require high-caliber intelligence and some fancy diplomacy.
In Georgia, at least a dozen al-Qaeda members are hiding in the Pankisi Gorge along the country's northeastern border, according to a U.S. official. They are thought to have arrived there after the fall of Kabul, finding the wild and remote gorge a safe harbor on their way from Afghanistan to Chechnya--where the Muslim rebellion is a favorite al-Qaeda cause.
The scale of the planned U.S. response suggests that the agenda includes more than grabbing a clutch of terrorists. Over the next six months, the U.S. intends to spend $64 million to train up to 1,600 Georgian soldiers in counterinsurgency. Between 100 and 200 U.S. soldiers and other specialists will start arriving this month. The program will also offer intelligence support and hardware, including combat helicopters and light weapons. "This is about beefing up Georgia's ability to do border security," says a U.S. official.
But the plan lands Washington in the middle of the complex and violent world of Caucasus politics and allies it firmly with a leader, Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze, whose grip on power has weakened dramatically in recent years--and who remains high on Russian President Vladimir Putin's list of least favorite people. Putin, who views Georgia as being firmly within Russia's sphere of influence, has publicly offered support for the U.S. action. But he claimed, reproachfully, that Washington did not inform him in advance. Then his lieutenants put in the knife: a gas concern closely linked to the Kremlin announced it would suspend fuel supplies to the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is completing a plan to send several scores of troops to Yemen, a longtime terrorist hideout. The FBI will also dispatch agents. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that al-Qaeda members will use Yemen as a base, because like Pakistan it offers such an inviting mix of political instability, Islamic extremism and enough infrastructure to set up shop. In the past, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a reluctant U.S. partner. The FBI complains that Yemeni authorities cooperated only "grudgingly and slowly," as one official puts it, with the investigation of the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden. Since Sept. 11, Saleh, looking to strengthen his rule and reap economic aid by cooperating, has apparently had a change of heart. Still, there is a risk the presence of U.S. forces will provoke extremists in Yemen to new terrorist acts.