U.S. Military Training Georgia Troops Could Help in Possible Troubles with Russians

Georgia's defense minister said Friday that training his troops will receive from the U.S. military before heading to Afghanistan could also be used in Georgia's "very difficult security environment."

Asked if he was referring to the possibility of another war with Russia, Georgian Defense Minister Vasil Sikharulidze answered: "In general, yes."

"This experience will be important for the Georgian armed forces itself — for the level of training," Sikharulidze said during an interview with The Associated Press in his Tbilisi office.

Later, Sikharulidze cited what he called several Russian violations contributing to the simmering feud between Georgia and Russia, including Russian troops stationed on Georgia soil, after last year's five-day war.

"So that makes our security environment really very serious and difficult and it's quite alarming, really," Sikharulidze said.

His comments immediately alarmed U.S. military officials who said they were not giving Georgian troops any training aimed at fighting Russia.

On Sept. 1, approximately 65 Marines will begin training a Georgian army battalion in counterinsurgency tactics before the troops head to Helmand province, the Taliban-infested region in southern Afghanistan.

Sikharulidze met Friday with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway to discuss the training program. Earlier this week, Conway told The AP that the U.S. training program didn't include skills that could be used against Russia.

Counterinsurgency skills "aren't very helpful when it comes to main force-type units if there were to be engagement of nations," Conway said. "I am very comfortable that what we're doing is very much aboveboard and is commensurate with what the country has said they need to put troops in Afghanistan."

Sikharulidze also said that while Georgia has committed to fighting in Afghanistan for two years, officials would pull back its troops if war broke out again with Russia.

Georgia says last year's war started with a Russian invasion of the South Ossetia separatist region and that Russia aimed to regain control of Georgia. Russia says the fighting started with a Georgian assault.

Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.

Several Georgian government officials echoed Conway's comments that the Marine training is not intended for use in any future face-offs with Russia.

Sikharulidze's spokesman, David Nardaia, said the defense minister would clarify his comments later Friday but did not say how.

The U.S. training mission gives new life to a program that stalled when Marines left Georgia last year, shortly after the war broke out. Then, American troops were helping Georgians prepare to deploy to Iraq.

Similarly, the United States gave Georgia military aid in 2002 and 2003 to help improve counterterror capabilities. Russia objected to the U.S. aid and claimed that Georgian forces were refusing to root out Chechen rebels who were taking shelter in Georgia.

The training program also comes at a time when U.S. and NATO commanders are looking at increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan — or at least replacing those from nations such as Canada that are planning to leave.

Marine Col. Scott Cottrell, who is leading the training, said the Georgians have been eager to learn to work alongside NATO forces.

"I told them, 'Right now, you can do gate guard duty.' They didn't want that," Cottrell said during an overview of the program on Friday. "Are they capable? Yes. They just need to be educated a little bit."