And then came the Americans, their eyes feasting on a much larger treasure than Pankisi: America wants everything BUT Pankisi, every relevant earth bubble and air strip from Almaty to Batumi and from Ashqabat to Karachi, and the hundreds of billions in natural resource riches that it promises. The Russians, Chechens and Georgians have been socking each other around in a sandbox called Pankisi, fighting over dirty dollar bills; the Americans, on the other hand, are busy taking over a swath of earth so rich and so large that, if a globe were represented by a basketball, it would represent my entire hand -- while Pankisi wouldn't even register as a hair on my knuckle.
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Russian hysteria over international terrorists in Pankisi gave the Americans the perfect excuse to go in and become the Power in Georgia. The Russians couldn't suddenly deny that there were terrorists there, otherwise it would discredit their war in Chechnya. The Georgians were so ecstatic about the Americans' arrival that Sheverdnadze even seems willing to close down the ugly business in Pankisi and trade it for a cut in the gazillion-dollar Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. What's more, he's in desperate need of propping up. After the suicide last week of Nugzar Sadjaya, his National Security Council chief and "gray cardinal", Sheverdnadze looked like he was hanging by a thread. Sadjaya was easily the single most important figure in Sheverdnadze's rise to power and survival. Moscow-tied Georgian rivals waged a brutal psychological campaign against Sadjaya, who was a strong supporter of American military cooperation, accusing him of everything from assassinating Sheverdnadze's predecessor to pederasty, with pictures promised on the even of his suicide. Without Sadjaya, Sheverdnadze looked doomed.
"He's through, and soon," Pasha told me. "He's not only through, but he's going to get tried and jailed for all of his crimes, that's for sure."
Enter the Americans, who over the past 20 years have nearly perfected the art of propping up grossly unpopular despots friendly to American interests, having learned their lessons after the shocks in Iran and Nicaragua.
Sheverdnadze boasted after the deal to bring some 200 US special forces troops to Georgia that the goal was not so much to fight Al Qaeda in the Pankisi as it was to "strengthen the state." Georgia hardly has an army to speak of. The Americans plan to train special elite battalions to form the core of a real, effective army.
There are four breakaway regions in Georgia, two of them violently separatist and directly supported by the Russian military, regions Sheverdnadze hasn't dared touch. A modern trained and equipped Georgian army with American advisors might not only be able to bring the Pankisi Gorge, but all of Georgia under its control. That would be good for Sheverdnadze and good for American oil companies. But how would the Russians react to that?
Last Wednesday, they threatened to recognize the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, nearly turning Duma deputy Leonid Rogozin's pronouncement that "Georgia is falling apart before our very eyes" into a reality.
By Friday, Putin shifted the rhetoric. "The Georgians have the right defend their security," he said. "Why not let the Americans in there?"
Putin had no choice short of breaking with America. He couldn't go against ally America's taking the war against international terrorism to Pankisi Gorge -- after all Russia asked repeatedly for permission to do the same. Why should Putin care who stamps out the alleged terrorist bases in Pankisi? Yeah, and why should I pull my head out of this Hoover vacuum cleaner bag?
It was yet another in a series of diplomatic bitchslappings that the Americans have dealt their ally Putin since the fall of Kandahar made America as arrogant and dumb as ever before. The minute we started feeling safe again, it was "Fuck You World!" And why not? There's no way America will ever need Russia or anyone else again, right? Right?