In Georgia, the hazards of proxy war

News Analysis

August 14, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - In the early 1990s, the United States began beefing up Georgia's army as the tiny republic gained its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union - an effort accelerated after 9/11 in what President Bush said was a fight against al-Qaida.

That "train and equip" program is part of a growing, global American initiative to bolster military forces in such unlikely and unstable places as Ethiopia. Chad, Albania, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Yemen.

Cease-fire

Russian military reportedly violates truce. PG 3A

But critics, pointing to the week's violent events in Georgia, say it is a dangerous form of proxy warfare that can get out of hand.

Indeed, after receiving American training and equipment worth more than $1.5 billion since 1992, Georgia used its military forces last week in a confrontation, not against al-Qaida terrorists, but with Russia. Georgia's bid to reassert control over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia exploded into an international crisis.

"What happens when your client pursues an agenda that isn't your agenda?" observed Steven Biddle, an expert on warfare at the Council on Foreign Relations.

U.S. military assistance convinced the Georgians that "at the end of the day we would come to their aid," said Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University. "It was a very serious miscalculation."

In a rhetorical escalation yesterday, Bush issued a stern statement from the White House that portrayed Russia as the aggressor and stressed that the United States "stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia."

As invading Russian troops and paramilitary forces took up positions outside the central Georgian city of Gori, blocking all east-west traffic in the country and reportedly looting and burning homes, Bush said he expects Russia to "cease all military activities in Georgia."

He said Russia should honor its commitment to withdraw "all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days." The phrase made no mention of the several thousand Russian "peacekeeping" troops stationed in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions since the mid-1990s.

Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to stop in Paris to confer with European Union officials and then proceed to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to "rally the free world in the defense of a free Georgia."

He also directed the Pentagon to begin what officials later described as "a continuous and robust" military-led provision of humanitarian support to Georgia.

Pentagon and State Department officials indicated they expected free access to sea lanes, ports and airfields in Georgia to deliver humanitarian supplies. U.S. ships bringing humanitarian supplies to Georgia would transit the Black Sea, where Russia maintains a fleet of warships at a base leased from Ukraine.

"We expect that Russia will respect the humanitarian nature of this mission," Rice said.

The rhetoric and diplomacy, and the continuing violence in Georgia, where there were hundreds of reported casualties and thousands left homeless by the fighting, seemed a long way from Bush's declaration in February, 2002, that the threat in Georgia was al-Qaida.

"So long as there's al-Qaida influence anywhere, we will help those host countries rout them out and bring them to justice," he told reporters after a speech in Charlotte, N.C.

Just in the past year, the Pentagon has spent $6.5 million in Georgia, described by the State Department as "a steadfast ally in the war on terror." Georgia has received uniforms, small arms and ammunition, and training in communications, tactics, and combat medicine, and at least six "Huey" helicopters.

Its officers were also trained in command-post operations.

In return, Georgia sent its U.S.-trained soldiers to join American peacekeeping troops in Kosovo.

In addition, Georgia sent about 2,000 troops to Iraq, where they were the third-largest troop contributor, after the U.S. and Britain, until they were recalled this week.

The benefit of military aid to such willing countries is that it creates "partners who will fight with us or for us," Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in April.

"We encouraged [the Georgians] to think they were a critical American ally," agreed Daniel Nelson, a former European expert at the State Department.

But while the "train and equip" program helped Georgia build a larger military force, "it was still not capable of withstanding a Russian onslaught" said Nelson.

"We are complicit in this disaster," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who fought for and won authorization to expand the "train and equip" program this year with additional funding of $750 million worldwide for fiscal year 2009, has called the effort critical.

"The program focuses on places where we are not at war, but where there are both emerging threats and opportunities," he said at a congressional hearing April 15.

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