Nathan Hodge | Wired | Monday, Aug 11, 2008
Georgia and Russia are careening towards war. And the U.S. isn’t exactly a detached observer in the fight. The American military has been training and equipping Georgian troops for years.
The news thus far: Georgia, which has been locked in a drone war over the separatist enclave of Abkhazia, has launched an offensive to reclaim another breakaway territory, South Ossetia. Latest reports indicate that Georgian forces are laying siege to Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. And Russia, which has backed the separatists, is sending in the tanks.
So why should we care? Oh, just the prospect of a larger regional war that could drag in Russia – and involve the United States as well. Since early 2002, the U.S. government has given a healthy amount of military aid to Georgia. When I last visited South Ossetia, Georgian troops manned a checkpoint outside Tskhinvali — decked out in surplus U.S. Army uniforms and new body armor.
The first U.S. aid came under the rubric of the Georgia Train and Equip Program (ostensibly to counter alleged Al Qaeda influence in the Pankisi Gorge); then, under the Sustainment and Stability Operations Program. Georgia returned the favor, committing thousands of troops to the multi-national coalition in Iraq. Last fall, the Georgians doubled their contingent, making them the third-largest contributor to the coalition. Not bad for a nation of 4.6 million people.
Leaving aside the question of Russian interference (see below), the larger concern has been that Georgia might be tempted to use its newfound military prowess to resolve domestic conflicts by force.
As Sergei Shamba, the foreign affairs minister of Abkhazia, told me in 2006: “The Georgians are euphoric because they have been equipped, trained, that they have gained military experience in Iraq. It feeds this revanchist mood… How can South Ossetia be demilitarized, when all of Georgia is bristling with weaponry, and it’s only an hour’s ride by tank from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali?”
One of the U.S. military trainers put it to me a bit more bluntly. “We’re giving them the knife,” he said. “Will they use it?”