Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Quietly Puts Down Roots in Georgia ; A $64-Million US Training Program for Georgian Troops Begins This Month

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Quietly Puts Down Roots in Georgia ; A $64-Million US Training Program for Georgian Troops Begins This Month

Article excerpt

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. …

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