Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Train and Equip Stumbles on

The most important phase of the US military assistance programme in Georgia is due to start later this month – but the project has already run into problems.
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When a group of eight American congressmen arrived in Georgia last week to inspect the progress of the US army’s Train and Equip programme, they probably got more than they bargained for.


The programme, which began on April 30 is designed to create four anti-terrorist battalions, comprising a total of 2,000 soldiers. Within 18 months they must be fit to combat militant fighters active in Georgia, in particular remnants of al-Qaeda, alleged to be sheltering in the Pankisi Gorge area.


The congressmen spent only a few hours at the military base – not enough for them to get a good grasp on all the details of the programme. Speaking to journalists afterwards, they confined themselves to only a few general remarks.


Later however Georgian officers, speaking privately, explained the reason for the Americans’ reticence: they were completely shocked by their encounter with the real state of the Georgian army.


The Train and Equip programme is Washington’s highest-profile intervention ever in the Caucasus and as such carries great political and military risks. In the eyes of the Georgian leadership, the new military partnership should show how the Georgian state has established itself and how seriously it takes the problem of terrorism.


The head of Georgia’s General Staff Joni Pirtskhalaishvili said that the battalion would be fully up to strength with 400 soldiers by August 27, when tactical exercises with the Americans are due to start.


But the programme’s recruiters are having big problems finding suitable men. On July 10, it had had just 98 applications – they had hoped for 600 by July 20. The lack of applications suggests that families are still reluctant to send their sons into the army, even when there are American officers in charge.


“The condition of candidates for the first battalion is simply depressing,” one military doctor, who is selecting young men and asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR.


The doctor said the would-be special forces soldiers should be attracted by the high salaries on offer – 380 lari (around 200 US dollars) for a private and up to 650 lari or 320 US dollars for a colonel.


Members of the medical commission say privately that the military commissariats in the Georgian provinces have been sending soldiers, who are simply unfit for army life. “One of them had a diseased kidney after he was sick with hepatitis, another had heart problems and a third suffered from constant stomach upsets,” said the doctor. “In general, it’s a rare candidate who is healthy enough to perform the Americans’ duties.”


He said that commission members are being asked to close their eyes to problems so as not to disrupt the formation of the battalion. “But how can we square it with our conscience if during the first forced march the Americans see that we have let sickly soldiers into their unit?” he asked


The Train and Equip programme’s difficulties came to the surface in mid-July with the resignation of the Colonel Niki Janjgava, who had been named acting commander of Georgia’s land forces and coordinator of the programme.


The 32-year-old rising star, who studied in elite training colleges in the US, announced his resignation along with more than 100 fellow-officers, citing strong disagreements with the defence ministry’s policies, including its attitude to the American programme.


After negotiations with defence minister David Tevzadze everyone but Janjgava withdrew their resignations. But the demarche was a strong sign of discontent in the army.


Defence ministry officials say Janjgava was guilty of “inappropriate behaviour”. But Janjgava himself, now retired from the army, says he was only telling the truth: that Georgian soldiers need to be properly clothed and fed, before they are trained and equipped.


Georgia’s recent experience with the NATO Partnership for Peace programme also suggests that there may be problems ahead for the US initiative.


This year the Georgian army was supposed to take part in 196 Partnership for Peace events. But according to a General Staff official, Irakli Batkuashvili, financial problems mean that it can only participate in “a maximum of 70 per cent of them”.


Batkuashvili said that the 300,000 lari (160,000 US dollars) the army planned to spend on the programme as a whole had “practically all been spent on conducting the multi-national exercises at the military base in Vaziani”.


As a result, in the second half of this year Georgia will mainly take part only in the projects, which are fully funded by NATO. But Batkuashvili said “that it is not always what we need”.


Amidst a new escalation of tension with Russia, Georgia’s national security council on August 1 took the decision to accelerate the country’s drive to join NATO. By November 1, a special government commission is supposed to devise a programme setting out how Georgia will integrate itself into European security structures.


For much of society, the arrival of the American trainers at the end of April was nothing short of a national holiday here.


One Georgian deputy German Patsatsia was so inspired that he has invited the American general of Georgian descent John Shalikashvili to take part in Georgia’s parliamentary and presidential elections.


Shalikashvili, now 65, was NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe. “Maybe Georgia will stop being a presidential republic, but all the same Shalikashvili ought to become the top state official here,” Patsatsia said on August 1.


Analysts are far gloomier about the prospects for the Georgian military, pointing out that veterans of the Abkhaz war of 1992-4 are in a miserable state and that the army is badly in need of reform.


David Darchiashvili, a military specialist with the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, said that if the army does not acquire greater transparency, its internal problems could get worse – and that could seriously damage Train and Equip. “If it does not put an end to the American programme, the power struggle in the defence ministry for spheres of influence may, at least, lower its expected impact,” he said.


Mikhail Vignansky is director of the Prime News agency.