TBILISI, Georgia – A contingent of Green Beret trainers landed in this ex-Soviet republic Sunday, adding Georgia to the list of countries where U.S. troops have deployed in the 8-month-old counter-terror campaign.
After two days of travel from Fort Carson, Colo., about 50 Army Special Forces soldiers, in green camouflage uniforms, laden with heavy packs, stepped briskly down from a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport at the Georgian capital's airport.
It marked the beginning of a two-year training program for elite troops of Georgia's tiny and underfunded army. The corps of instructors at times will expand to 150, as specialists come and go on short terms of duty.
"It's very valuable, very important," an officer on the Georgian general staff, Col. George Giorgobiani, said of the U.S. mission. "All the experience of the American military schools will be brought here."
The Pentagon has said the training will help the Georgian army "address the situation in the Pankisi Gorge," a lawless area of northeast Georgia where U.S. officials say terrorists linked to Al Qaeda may be sheltered among Muslim guerrillas and refugees from across the border in the separatist-minded Russian region of Chechnya.
At a news conference on the windy airport tarmac, the Green Beret mission commander, Lt. Col. Robert M. Waltemeyer, fended off questions about conditions in the Pankisi area.
"I am here to train and equip the Georgian army," Waltemeyer said.
The trainers, members of Waltemeyer's 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Carson, joined two dozen other Americans who have been here for weeks planning the operation.
The program formally begins May 27 with a 70-day course of staff training for Georgian officers. Later, the Americans will conduct four consecutive 100-day tactical training programs for four specialized Georgian army units — special forces, commando, and mountain battalions, and a motorized rifle brigade.
The trainers include specialists in mountain fighting, urban combat and other skills. The $64 million program also will supply the Georgian military with small arms and ammunition, uniform items, and communications and other equipment.
The Pentagon says the training of these 2,000 elite Georgian troops is part of a global counterterrorism effort that already has thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and nearby central and south Asia, hundreds deployed to a Muslim guerrilla area in the Philippines, and a U.S. advance team planning military training for the Arab nation of Yemen.
The U.S. troops will not participate in any military operations in Georgia, the Pentagon says. Waltemeyer has said he and his trainers have no plans to travel to the rugged Pankisi area, just 21 miles by air from Tbilisi.
Russian officials complain that President Eduard Shevardnadze's government, whose relations with Moscow are chilly, encouraged the growth of a Chechen cross-border base in the Pankisi area in the 1990s.
The Russians have suggested at times they might launch a military strike into Georgia to root out Chechen guerrillas and what they say are their Arab comrades.
A Georgian military analyst says the American move is a pre-emptive one.
"The U.S. talk about the Pankisi Gorge is Washington's way of telling the Russians not to enter, that Georgia will take care of it," said Tamara Pataraia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.
There's no sign, however, that the 20,000-member Georgian military plans any action for the Pankisi Gorge, or for another trouble spot: breakaway Abkhazia, the northwestern region where negotiations are stalled between the Christian-dominated Georgian government and Muslim separatists who run the area as a virtual independent state.
Pro-Russian Georgians speculate the U.S.-Georgian partnership is not aimed at guerrillas in Pankisi, but at establishing a U.S. base on Russia's border and near Iraq.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not objected to the U.S. mission, however, and little opposition has been voiced in the Georgian Parliament.
This land of 5 million people, wedged between Russia and Turkey, emerged as an independent state in 1991 from the breakup of the Soviet Union.