US faces tough training mission in the Caucasus
This week Green Berets began trying to turn Georgia's soldiers into professionals.
Soldiers in this former Soviet republic are about to get a crash course in Western military tactics, as the US expands its partnership against terror and its sphere of influence to the Caucasus.Skip to next paragraph
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For the American trainers, bringing the Georgian military up to professional muster is a tall order. By any measure, Georgia's Army is underfunded, poorly disciplined, and disorganized and Georgians themselves complain of low morale and little respect for higher-ranking officers.
"There is no such discipline because [Georgian soldiers] don't respect each other," says Beka Ambroladze, a cadet at the Georgia's military academy. "This [US training] is very important to us."
Under the Georgia "Train and Equip" program, which got under way this week, US special forces will instruct every level of the Georgian military, from its top leaders equivalent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of the Army to officers and enlisted soldiers in line units. The graduates will in turn train other Georgian soldiers.
Although US special forces have previously trained troops around the world, the ambitious program is the most comprehensive of its kind, officials say. The 20-month, $64-million plan, involving a maximum of 150 US soldiers, is expected to be duplicated in 20 other countries as President George Bush looks to develop partner countries in the war on terrorism.
The US wants this mission to be public, in part, to dispel fears in Russia that the US is setting up covert operations in Russia's backyard or otherwise threatening its former cold-war foe. US officials have said repeatedly they have no plans to conduct combat in the Pankisi Gorge a lawless area of Georgia where terrorists are suspected to be hiding or anywhere else in the country.
The mission furthers a NATO foothold in a country historically plagued by ethnic separatism and now poised to become an important corridor for trade and energy from Central Asia to Europe.
Careful not to embarrass their Georgian colleagues, the first team of about 70 US soldiers, most of whom arrived May 19, talk of "enhancing" the Georgian military, whose own commanders admit that they don't know how many soldiers are in their units, or how to plan, train troops, or track supplies. Many soldiers don't have more than one uniform or one pair of boots, if they have one at all. They aren't paid regularly and are sent home in winter because there is no money to feed them or heat barracks.
At a base in Vaziani, 20 miles northeast of Tbilisi, the barracks were stripped of electric outlets, windows shattered, and water pipes broken or clogged up by the Russian military as it pulled out a year ago. The Americans will renovate part of the barracks to house US soldiers for a few months and then turn it over to the Georgians.
Meanwhile, the Americans are billeted in Tbilisi's Sheraton Hotel, which, with its marble plaza, glass elevators, and phalanx of private and government security guards, forms an incongruously luxurious, secure spot in this unstable, struggling country. The US Army is spending roughly $700,000 to house its soldiers here until early August, when they will move to the renovated Georgian bases.