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.
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.
"To the outsider, it looks like we are living high on the hog," says Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, commander of the US mission here. "In the security and money analysis, this turns out to be one of the best options in town."
As part of the training program, the US plans to supply small arms, ammunition, uniforms, communication equipment, and other gear. But Lt. Col. Waltemeyer is worried that, in this impoverished and corrupt corner of the former USSR, the handouts will be stolen or sold on the black market. "I am adamant that I will not hand equipment to anyone but the individual users," says Waltemeyer.
He also has concerns about some trainees. All Georgian security forces will receive some instruction, including the Ministry of Interior Defense, which occupies former KGB compounds and does internal policing in Georgia. Waltemeyer says he has raised this issue with Washington officials about who should be involved in the next phase combat training. No decision has been made.
"I am concerned about the perception it would send to the Georgian and American people if we trained an internal force," Waltemeyer says.
He says he wants the training to lead to changes in the Georgian military. There will be follow-up after the US soldiers leave to make sure the lessons are being applied. "There will be accountability," he says.
In his opening session Monday with the first group of trainees, about 200 Georgian officers, Waltemeyer told them to be ready for an intense program. The US trainers plan to teach in 70 days what American officers usually study for a year.
Many of the US soldiers speak Russian, but not Georgian, so interpreters will be used. The Americans are working to avoid any linguistic land mines. For instance, the word "sniper" in Georgian means "assassin" or "hit man," so the term "long-range precision marksmanship" will be used.
Some of the concepts they will teach sound simple, such as how to hold a staff meeting, but that actually could require some cultural adjustments.
In a previous training program, in Croatia, Chief Warrant Officer Jim Sissons recalled, staff meetings went on for hours as officers talked about totally unrelated matters. Here, they will teach the Georgians to stick to a time limit and make it as short as possible, to only cover matters outlined and to prepare questions ahead of time.
One of the biggest challenges Warrant Officer Sissons has encountered while training soldiers in former Soviet countries is a reliance on getting all direction from the top brass. Lower-ranking officers and enlisted soldiers are not allowed to innovate or make decisions on their own.
In the US system, every soldier down to the buck private is expected to know what the commander's intent is and to be able to carry it out on his own.
"Sometimes it takes a whole day to explain initiative.... In their system, you didn't go anywhere if you aren't told," says Sissons, a veteran of the cold war who will be teaching in classrooms that still feature diagrams of Soviet weapons and marching styles. "We can't just make these guys just like the US. We are fighting more than two generations of that [Soviet] indoctrination here."