As anticipated, the United States and Georgia are taking the next logical step, after having announced that international terrorists are, after all, hiding in the Pankisi Gorge. That next step is to give Georgian forces the capability to operate in Pankisi, before Russian forces bludgeon their way in and spread their war from Chechnya into Georgia.
On February 27, Pentagon officials let it be known that a decision has been made to deploy up to 200 U.S. Special Force troops to Georgia on a train-and-equip mission. This will be the first American military deployment in the South Caucasus since the region’s countries became independent a decade ago. In recent years, U.S. and other Western military personnel went in and out of Georgia on various assessment visits and small-scale training programs, and also for exercises including a large-scale one last year. There were, however, no deployments.
When this deployment materializes, Georgia will become the third country, after Afghanistan and the Philippines, in which U.S. forces are inserted for a role in combat situations. By the same token, Georgia becomes the first post-Soviet country to which U.S. troops are deployed for such a role, albeit a circumscribed one (see below). By contrast, U.S. forces deployed to Central Asia are not meant to participate in military operations within those countries.
According to Pentagon officials, planning for this mission follows the lines of the American operation currently underway in the Philippines. In any combat situation in Georgia, U.S. soldiers would accompany Georgian troops, and would act in key advisory and intelligence-providing roles, but would be barred from direct combat, unless they are themselves attacked, in which case they are authorized to engage in combat.
The American instructors, many among them Green Berets, will work with Georgia’s rapid deployment brigade, a fledgling unit that, for now, lacks any serious intervention capability. The program to develop that brigade has been underway since last year, in the context of Georgia’s military reform program, supervised by the U.S. European Command which is headquartered near Stuttgart, Germany. Last October in Washington, President Eduard Shevardnadze discussed an acceleration of that program with Vice President Richard Cheney and other American officials. Last December, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Georgia and checked progress on that program.
The Pankisi situation has lent that program added urgency, and may well shift its emphasis somewhat or sharpen its focus toward antiterrorist combat. The focus is now on training and equipping several high-readiness battalions. Earlier this month, a forty-strong U.S. military team including special force officers discreetly visited Georgia to assess the country’s immediate security needs and prepare a U.S. assistance plan. Last week, the prominent Georgian politicians Zurab Zhvania, Mikheil Saakashvili and Revaz Adamia–a pro-Western team, preparing for the post-Shevardnadze period–returned from a visit to Washington intimating that U.S. help was on its way.