US quietly puts down roots in Georgia

A $64-million US training program for Georgian troops begins this month.

A US military training program for Georgia, which gets under way this month, has more to do with stabilizing the still-weak former Soviet republic and furthering a NATO foothold in the Caucasus than in directly enlisting Georgian forces in the US-led antiterrorism campaign. Some two dozen US special forces trainers arrived in Georgia on April 30 as an advance team for the substantial US effort, which will train roughly 2,000 Georgian special forces over the next two years.

While Georgia's troubled Pankisi Gorge is believed to be the base of Al Qaeda-linked militants, a cleanup does not seem imminent. Agence France Presse reported that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze pledged on Monday not to attack the area, saying: "We will not use force there – we are only concerned with the fate of the refugees [in the gorge]."

US assistance was planned well before Sept. 11, and even after the attacks, its overriding mission remains the same: to mold the Georgian military into a more professional force, capable of handling the myriad challenges facing a country historically racked with ethnic separatism and now on the verge of becoming a important corridor for trade and energy from Central Asia to Europe. But in the process, the program has drawn a jealous eye from Russia, nervous about long-term American interest in the nation.

Focusing on enhancing command and control mechanisms with the defense ministry – including a new National Military Command Center – the US program also aims not only to raise professional competency but to set a new example of interagency coordination, which the military currently lacks.

"Our country must have an effective defense system, and this program is of paramount importance for us ... in creating a new core for our armed forces," says Gela Bezhuashvili, deputy defense minister.

Although US officials emphasize they will pack their bags after the roughly two years it takes to implement the $64-million "Georgia Train-and-Equip" program, this seems more likely a new phase of bilateral ties that will continue expanding.

"Everyone we train is a future trainer.... We want to leave in place a sustainable training program for the Georgians," says team leader Lt. Col. Robert E. Waltemeyer, in Tbilisi before the rest of the estimated 150 special forces trainers arrive by the end of the month.

Georgian defense officials agree this seems a logical progression for defense cooperation that started in 1998, and is in step with Georgia's stated interest in eventually joining NATO. Georgia, for the second year in a row, will host a 16-nation NATO exercise later this month. This broader, long-term agenda explains the howls of protest recently rising from Moscow. "Georgia ... is making a huge strategic mistake by turning to the US for help," says Yury Gladkeyevich, an expert with the Interfax-AVN independent military news agency.

The Caucasus has been in Russia's sphere of influence for 200 years and has always been critical bulwark against Iran (or Persia) and Turkey, a NATO country also actively developing bilateral military ties with Georgia through NATO's Partners for Peace program. For the second year in a row, Russia has not even responded to a Brussels invitation to attend the NATO exercises in Georgia as observers.

But there may be a silver lining: US training could help contain the festering lawlessness of the Pankisi Gorge, where Russia says Chechen rebels train and rearm. The 12-mile long valley near the Chechen border, where Russia wages a brutal war against separatists, is home to 10,000 people. Most are Kists, ethnic Chechens who have been "Georgianized" by living there for generations.

Georgia has hosted more than 7,000 Chechen refugees from the fighting there for the past three years, and Georgian security officials recently conceded they have tacitly allowed in armed rebels as long as they do not create trouble.

This has infuriated Russia, which asserts the right of "hot pursuit." On numerous occasions Russia has violated Georgian airspace – in some instances even dropping bombs.

In recent months Washington's view of the Chechen insurgency has come closer to Moscow's, especially as intelligence connects Al Qaeda with some Chechen leaders, including "Khattab," who was assassinated recently by a poisoned letter.

In February Philip Remler, the charge d'affairs at the US Embassy in Tbilisi, told the Georgian media that "dozens" of Islamic militants fled to Pankisi from Afghanistan.

More recent media accounts report that the American arrival has already encouraged Al Qaeda Arabs to move on.

"I will not speculate on future operations on the Pankisi," said Colonel Waltemeyer last week. At any rate it will take many months before a US-trained battalion would be able to attack Pankisi.

But many analysts say the real problems in the Pankisi are arms (reportedly mostly Russian weapons sold to Chechens to be used against Russians), Afghan heroin, and frequent kidnapping. They have their roots in the morass of corrupt government circles in Tbilisi, just three hours drive away.

Currently, security in the Pankisi is the shared responsibility of border guards, police, and state security (former KGB) forces, allegedly among the most corrupt of Georgian government agencies. A TV station secretly taped a Georgian general, Tristan Tsitelashvili, repenting for his failure to deliver a prepaid order of $50,000 worth of arms to a Chechen rebel – by offering to set up a Georgian businessman for kidnapping.

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