By THOM SHANKER, NYTimes.com, Aug. 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — The United States is resuming a combat training mission in the former Soviet republic of Georgia to prepare its army for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, despite the risks of angering Russia, senior Defense Department officials said Thursday.
The training effort is intended to prepare Georgian troops to fight at NATO standards alongside American and allied forces in Afghanistan, the Pentagon officials said.
Russian officials have been informed, American officials said. The training should not worry the Kremlin, they said, because it would not involve skills that would be useful against a large conventional force like Russia’s.
“This training mission is not about internal defenses or any capabilities that the Georgians would use at home,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “This is about the United States supporting Georgia’s contribution to the war in Afghanistan, which everybody can recognize is needed and valued and appreciated.”
At the same time, officials in Washington said, the Georgians should not see the new training mission as a military counterweight to Russian influence along Georgia’s borders and within the separatist regions they fought over.
A year ago, the republic’s brief, disastrous war with Russia froze a similar American training operation that prepared Georgian troops for deployments to Iraq.
The new training mission is scheduled to begin Sept. 1. The first members of a Marine Corps training and advising team are to arrive in Georgia on Sunday or Monday, and the number of trainers will fluctuate between 10 and 69 over the next six months.
Georgia has pledged an army battalion — about 750 troops — to Afghanistan, and it should be ready to deploy next spring, perhaps by March.
It is unlikely that Kremlin officials could offer a convincing argument that training a single Georgian Army battalion amounted to a threat to Russian security. But the new training could be seen as a launching pad for increased military relations among Washington, NATO members and a former Soviet republic that aspires to NATO membership.
The Kremlin vehemently opposes any extension of NATO’s defensive umbrella over former Soviet republics, in particular Georgia and Ukraine. At the same time, some NATO officials view Georgia’s behavior before the war last year as needlessly provocative, and have said it harmed the country’s chances for alliance membership.
Shortly after taking office, President Obama ordered the doubling of American forces in Afghanistan, to about 68,000, and the administration has sought, with little success, to persuade NATO allies to add to their combat forces.
In contrast to some NATO allies that impose restrictions on where their forces can go and what they can do in Afghanistan, the Georgian military will send its troops with none of these so-called caveats, a decision viewed by American officials as intended to indicate Georgia’s worthiness for potential alliance membership.
Officials said Georgia’s troops would probably be assigned to operations in areas of Afghanistan under Marine command, so the training mission begins that partnership.
The United States has so far rebuffed requests from Georgia to rearm its military after its humiliating defeat by Russia. When the war began, Georgia recalled an army brigade serving in Iraq and never sent it back, and the Americans training the Georgians returned home.
Georgian troops that join the Afghan mission will bring their own small-caliber weapons, but the United States and other allies will supply vehicles, including armored transports, as well as logistical support and daily supplies, according to senior Defense Department officials.
Any weapons provided to the Georgians would stay in Afghanistan, the officials said.
Some military ties between the United States and Georgia resumed after the war with Russia, but they focused on officer development, improvement of command-and-control systems, and other such areas, officials said. There have been visits by senior American military officers and government leaders — most recently Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — and NATO has conducted some military exchanges.
Administration officials familiar with discussions with Russia said American officials emphasized that Russia had endorsed the international security assistance mission in Afghanistan. For example, Russia allows overflight rights and land access for the coalition supply mission for Afghanistan.
A senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to describe the diplomatic communications with Russia, acknowledged that “this is delicate for us — because while we want to be supportive of the Georgians, and look forward to their contribution in Afghanistan, we don’t want to be perceived incorrectly as supplying lethal capabilities that would elicit a Russian response.”
A version of this article appeared in print on August 14, 2009, on page A4 of the New York edition.