The third and most important phase of the American program “Train and Equip,” designed to prepare Georgian commando troops for antiterrorist operations, got underway on August 29. Fifty American military tutors will drill and equip about 500 Georgian commando troops for three months. The plan: to prepare more than 1,700 Georgian commandos for small-scale skirmishes and antiterror operations.
Meanwhile, the results of the two previous phases of the program, which included the training of 205 senior officers from all Georgian military forces, are materializing in the ongoing antiterrorist operation in the lawless Pankisi gorge (a Georgia region bordering with rebellious Chechnya). The operation, performed by internal troops and the security task force, is backed by the Defense Ministry’s “Kakheti-2000” maneuvers around Pankisi.
The outcome of this operation is extremely important for the Train and Equip program and the Georgian government as well–the stakes are very high.
IRRITATOR FOR RUSSIA
The reaction of the overwhelming majority of the Russian political establishment to the Train and Equip program is negative, and sometimes hostile. At first, Russian officials–including President Vladimir Putin–tried to play neutral, merely complaining that Georgia as a CIS member did not notify Russia about the start of the program.
Most Russian media then unleashed an information war against the program. Shortly after it began they raised a clamor that the Georgian government would definitely use the American-trained Georgian commando battalions against breakaway regions Abkhazia and former South Ossetia. The separatist governments in these regions promptly backed this propaganda campaign with their own, and used the Train and Equip program as a justification for increasing their military potential.
Most Russian politicians and analysts perceive that this program is the first step towards a permanent American military presence in the South Caucasus. The influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta went further and assumed that the program’s ultimate goal is to adjust the mode for settling domestic conflicts to include the help of the U.S. armed forces in states where central governments are weak and unpopular.
Some Russian analysts sarcastically compared the cost of the Train and Equip program (US$64 million) with the amount of Russian military assistance to Georgia for 1992-1995, which Russian sources estimate at US$600 million.
Russian officials and media constantly belittle the importance of the effort. They assert that American military assistance would not increase the combat-readiness of Georgian troops, and without Russian involvement any antiterrorist operation in Pankisi is doomed to failure.
Judging by the cautious responses to the American military presence there, it seems that Georgia’s Caucasian neighbors, especially Armenia, are far from delighted that the Train and Equip program might strengthen Georgia’s military potential, at the moment the weakest in the region.
STUMBLES OF LOCAL ORIGIN
The program and the noticeable American military presence have had a broad and mostly positive coverage by local media, though a few critical remarks have been heard.
The Week’s Palette wrote, for example, that Georgian military agencies did not send their best officers to the training courses of the program’s second phase. “Many Georgian trainees, much to the American tutors’ surprise, were frequently missing lectures,” said the newspaper. The equipping of Georgian commandos with Czech and Romanian manufactured “Kalashnikov” machineguns, which according to Georgian war veterans are shoddier than their Russian counterparts, was the subject of some caustic remarks in the press.
As to the attitude of Georgian politicians and the public, it is mostly consumptive … perceives the presence of U.S. military in the country and the Train and Equip program as simply another “gift” from Uncle Sam. Politicians emphasize the political rather than military implications of the program.
A known Georgian analyst, Ramaz Klimiashvili, in an interview with the Alia newspaper said: “Some people in Georgia are looking forward to putting part of the US$64 million earmarked for the program in their pockets. This is a milking of America. We are permanently milking America and the whole Western community.” The Chronicle Weekly with reference to sources in the Georgian Defense Ministry wrote that top Georgian military, including Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze likely intend to misappropriate a considerable part of the money allocated to the program.
President Eduard Shevardnadze did not miss a chance to get some good political mileage from the arrival of the American military in Georgia, hoping to strengthen his rocky political stance for a while. Shevardnadze presented the “Train and Equip” program to the public as a result of his efforts and level of political influence in the United States. “We have been preparing for this program step by step for eight years,” he said in one of his interviews. He emphasized the fact that the U.S. partnership is “a pretty good shield for Georgia.”
From a purely military point of view, the American program, aside from the preparation of Georgian commando units, will help to bring the Georgian military system, which at the moment relies heavily on Soviet-era equipment, more in line with Western standards.
But the current situation in the Georgian army does not favor the success of the American program. Rampant corruption among top military, chronic underfunding, squabbling between rival groups in the Ministry of Defense over spheres of influence, and a clash of generations in the army are just some of the problems awaiting solutions.
In July the country froze with fear over the outcome of the sharp protest by Vice Colonel Nick Janjghava, acting commander-in-chief of land troops and commander of the commando battalion, a key Georgian unit being trained by the American program. Everybody expected a military insurgency. But Janjghava simply retired. He protested the severe social conditions of the servicemen and the ineffective personnel policy of the Ministry of Defense. Moreover, Janjghava belonging to the new generation of Georgian commanders trained in the West, warned the parliamentary committee for defense and security of a possible attempt to sabotage the “Train and Equip” stemming from shortcomings in the Defense Ministry, and covered up by the ministry. Defense Ministry leadership received a parliamentary reprimand as a result.
Janjghava’s move received moral support from 102 officers and sergeants, who later returned to the service in order not to hamper the American program. Tevzadze’s clumsy attempts to explain Janjghava’s move as personal ambition on the part of a fallen officer convinced few.
The attitude of Georgian participants in the Train and Equip program seems to be far from positive. The publication Resonance interviewed a Georgian sergeant who preferred to remain anonymous. He said that if he and his colleagues did not receive their salaries and other necessary items as promised, they would rather withdraw from the program before it finishes.
Another threat is the factionalism within the Defense Ministry, which evidently plays into the hands of the Russian special services.
Today the senior staff of the ministry is a mixture of representatives of the Soviet military school, members of the pro-independence movement, veterans of the civil war and the war in Abkhazia and the new generation of pro-Western military with their own vision for building the Georgian army. It is difficult to predict which of them will emerge the winner.
Meanwhile, the Train and Equip program is mostly oriented towards pro-Western servicemen. The adaptation of the Georgian army to Western military standards is highly likely to squeeze old-timers out of the forces–a process that is unlikely to proceed smoothly.
Judging by the current political situation in Georgia and trends that could pan out in the near future, Georgian political-military leadership is likely to attempt to either use or at least demonstrate the powerful military tool they will receive as a result of the program. The chances for a peaceful solution to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict are therefore diminishing. Meanwhile, terrorists move freely wherever they want. They can easily find shelter in the loosely controlled Abkhazia as well. That’s why the success of the antiterrorist operation in Pankisi is so important.
The backlash in Russia regarding the American Train and Equip program in Georgia shows that Moscow considers this venture a challenge to Russian interests in the South Caucasus. Therefore, the likelihood of Russian subversion against the program remains high.
The success of the program both in the short and long term depends heavily on the sanitation of Georgian military structures and the political situation in the country in general.
The likelihood of the use of Georgian commando troops trained under the Train and Equip program in the breakaway regions of Georgia remains.
A magnifying glass is not needed to perceive the hidden political implications of the Train and Equip program. One of them is the strengthening of the American foothold in Georgia.
Zaal Anjaparidze is a freelance writer in Georgia.