TBILISI, Georgia, — A long-awaited team of U.S. military instructors arrived in the former Soviet republic of Georgia on Sunday to begin the latest mission in Washington’s global anti-terror campaign and further expand the American military presence in Central Asia.
was Independent for three years (1918-1921) following the
Russian revolution, it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR
until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Russian troops remain
garrisoned at four military bases and as peacekeepers in the
separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (but are
scheduled to withdraw from two of the bases by July 2001).
Despite a badly degraded transportation network - brought on by
ethnic conflict, criminal activities, and fuel shortages - the
country continues to move toward a market economy and greater
integration with Western institutions.
“YOU KNOW when you have boats in the harbor and the tide comes in and lifts them up? We are going to play the tide for the whole Georgian army,” said Lt. Co. Bill Wheelehan, part of an advance team that met the instructors on the ground.
“Welcome to Georgia,” he said aloud as he watched the gray C-17 military aircraft touch down at an airport near the capital, Tbilisi.
The United States is spending some $64 million on the mission — a small sum by U.S. standards but almost four times the annual defense budget in tiny Georgia, which has lost wars to separatists and relied on Russian peacekeepers since the Soviet Union broke apart.
The Green Beret instructors flew for two days from Ft. Carson, Colorado, to Georgia via Germany. The group numbered about 50, including the instructors and support staff.
“Between now and when training begins we are going to sleep for a little while because these guys have traveled a long way,” the group’s head, Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, said.
U.S. PRESENCE SPREADS
Their arrival adds to a growing U.S. military presence in parts of the old Soviet Union since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States that prompted President Bush to declare a “war on terrorism.”
But unlike U.S. troops in other ex-Soviet states, they did not come to provide support for fighting in Afghanistan, but to train a ragged and sometimes mutinous local army to fight extremists on their own territory.
Guerrillas are believed to use the lawless Pankisi Gorge, in northern Georgia, to regroup and rest between raids across the frontier on Russia’s rebel Chechnya region.
The Bush administration, under pressure amid recent reports that the president had been told before September of the possibility of a hijacking by followers of Osama bin Laden, wants Georgia to have an efficient army to combat rebels.
But the deployment of U.S. troops in Georgia has angered Russia, which considers the area its own backyard and had asked for its own forces to be invited to tackle the rebels. The American presence effectively shuts the Russians out.
Georgia, a traditionally Christian nation that has long yearned for closer ties to the West, considers the arrival of U.S. troops a sign that it is free from Moscow’s control.
The mission is likely to be discussed when Bush meets Russian President Vladimir Putin for a two-day summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg on May 24.
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The arrival of U.S. troops also spurred open hostility in Georgia’s rebel Abkhazia region. It fears Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, will eventually send his newly trained force to recapture the unruly territory after 10 years of de facto independence.
Georgia says about 2,000 soldiers and officers, the equivalent of about four battalions of infantry and border guards, will go through the six-month training program.
The soldiers will learn strategy in classrooms and tactics in the field. More than 100 instructors are expected to arrive in Tbilisi during the program.
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