GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — A battalion of Georgian soldiers has wrapped up training at Hohenfels, Germany, to be the nation’s third battalion of combat troops to join the fight in Afghanistan, but experts say there is more to the country’s participation than fighting terrorism.
For the past month, 750 soldiers from Georgia’s 33rd Light Infantry Battalion roamed the ranges at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center — a U.S. training area at Hohenfels — to prepare for an Afghan mission that starts in April.
But experts are quick to point out that Georgia’s participation in the Afghanistan war is at least in part to gain entry into NATO.
Retired Lt. Col. David Johnson, executive director of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, said the Afghan War-style counterinsurgency tactics that the Georgians learned at JMRC won’t help them defend their homeland against Russia, but training alongside American and NATO forces will stand the Georgians in good stead should they need to operate alongside them in future, he said.
“Their vital national interest is not Islamism or Afghanistan,” he said. “It is Russia.”
The Georgians are concerned about Russia’s designs on their region and feel NATO is a huge balancing power, he said.
“Even though NATO is about Europe, it is considered by people on the other side of Russia to be a strategic balance to Russian expansion,” he said.
From NATO’s perspective, training the Georgians gives the alliance strategic leverage with Russia, he added.
The 33rd is headed to volatile Helmand province to fight alongside U.S. Marines. Its two predecessor battalions have had six soldiers killed in action and 39 wounded since April 2010, according to Lt. Col. Dan Thoele, executive officer of the U.S. Marine Corps Training and Advisory Group, charged with preparing the Georgians for their mission.
“We are training them to fight in a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which includes operating from COPs (combat outposts) and holding battlespace,” Thoele said of the Hohenfels training, which wrapped up Thursday.
“We have developed scenarios where they have to work with a variety of enablers such as military working dogs, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal), aviation, route clearance platoons and USAID contractors,” he said.
The U.S. military has been working with the Georgians, who also participated in the Iraq War, since 2003, Thoele said, The current training program, which includes 151 U.S. instructors who work in Georgia, started in June 2009 and will train a fourth battalion to replace the 33rd later this year, he said.
What’s in it for Georgia?
“They get training as a professional military,” Thoele said. “They get to participate with the Afghan forces and other coalition forces.”
Col. Gocha Dashniani, the commander of Georgia’s Krtsanisi National Training Center, said the Georgian Army was formed May 26, 1991, the year after the nation gained independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union.
“By working with the Americans, we hope to gain experience cooperating with coalition forces,” he said. “Fighting back to back with the coalition forces gives the Georgian units the advantage to learn how to conduct fight according to NATO standards. All that overall leads Georgia towards NATO.”
Maj. Zaza Tsamalashili, who commands the 33rd, said the American training facilities offer options not available in Georgia, such as working with the civilian role-players and professional opposing forces who play the Taliban.
“Every single soldier and the commander will gain as much experience as they can,” he said. “The environment here at JMRC is very close the environment in Afghanistan.”
None of the Georgians would answer questions about how the training might help their nation protect itself against Russia, their much larger neighbor that invaded Georgia in 2008 and still occupies the country’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.
However, Ana Margebadze, 24, of Tbilisi, a linguist working with the troops at Hohenfels, said the experience that the Georgian troops are gaining by working alongside the Americans will be invaluable.
“They (Georgian soldiers) must be capable for situations,” she said. “For example, there was the Russia-Georgia conflict.”
Georgia wants to become a member of NATO and the European Union, she added.
Training with Americans “is kind of an advantage for Georgia,” she said. “We want to be safe and to be part of NATO will provide security for Georgia. We want life in a safe country and we want to reunify the country, but it is important to unify peacefully.”