War Games Too Close For Comfort

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
CQ Weekly
October 13, 2008
Pg. 2765
By Roland Flamini, CQ Staff
Two months after the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the incident continues to pose nagging questions for the United States government, and a Pentagon assessment team is in Georgia this week seeking some answers. Mainly, the investigators want to learn more about how the American-trained Georgian soldiers performed with their American-provided weapons. But they also want to know how five Marine Humvees and boxes of U.S. military supplies ended up in Russian hands.
On one level, the answer to that question is simple. In what appears to be a curious coincidence, only a week before the Georgia-Russia conflict began, more than 1,000 American troops were in Georgia for a joint military training exercise with that country’s army.
Almost all the U.S. troops had departed the site of the exercise — the Vaziani air base, about 15 miles southeast of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — several days before Russia launched its large-scale retaliatory invasion in response to Georgian incursion into the breakaway province of South Ossetia. But about 130 soldiers and Marines had not left. A few days before a bombing raid on the air base, they were quietly taken to a hotel in Tbilisi and kept out of the way for almost two weeks — until several days after the military skirmish ended.
The Pentagon has concluded that the awkward situation of having U.S. troops in the same country as advancing Russian soldiers was handled appropriately; it would have been too risky to try to fly them out once the confrontation began, especially since they were not close to the action. But the Pentagon assessment team is trying to get to the bottom of why some non-human damage was done.
Shipping containers of U.S. military supplies and equipment that were on their way home after the exercises never got farther than the port at Poti, where they were later looted by Russian troops. Five Humvees also disappeared from the docks, and as of last week the Bush administration was negotiating with Russia for their return.
The joint military exercise — dubbed Operation Immediate Response 2008 — was designed to improve cooperation between U.S. and Georgian forces in potential combat situations. Along with 61 tons of ammunition and explosives, the Pentagon had shipped in 79 tons of the prepackaged rations known as Meals Ready to Eat, 330 tons of additional food, 66 tons of ice and 332,000 bottles of water. A U.S. force consisting of 320 National Guardsmen — coincidentally, from the state of Georgia — along with 300 Marine reservists and several active-duty units, normally based in Germany, joined more than 600 Georgian troops July 15 to practice street fighting against insurgents in a full-size mock-up of a Middle Eastern town that had been custom-built for the exercise at Vaziani.
The exercise received a surprise visit from Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who was reported to have told his country’s troops that “training is a precondition of victory.” (The troops were going to head to Iraq, where Georgia had the third-largest force — until almost all of them were sent home during the conflict with Russia.)
The exercise ended on schedule July 31, but members of the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia National Guard did not start leaving for two more days, according to a Guard spokesman. The airlifting of the Marines began the next day, Aug. 3. When Georgian forces launched their surprise attack on Aug. 7, there were still 130 U.S. troops at Vaziani, mainly to handle post-exercise logistics.
The Americans were moved to the capital as soon as the Russians launched their counterstrike, which included a march through Georgia to the port at Poti, 160 miles from Tbilisi. It was there that “five HMMWVs were removed by the Russians and two shipping containers containing medical and office supplies were looted by the Russians,” Master Sgt. Grady T. Fontana, a Marine spokesman in Europe, said by e-mail. Not surprisingly, the Georgians had given the visiting Americans no hint of the planned incursion.
Lt. Col. Matthew Shannon of the Georgia National Guard, one of those left behind, said that on Aug. 6 members of his team were working with 10 Georgian officers on the use of unmanned surveillance drones. The next day only two showed up, “and they suddenly received phone calls and left without explanation. I thought, OK, something’s happening.” The attack on South Ossetia began the day after that.
There is no question that a large American troop presence in Georgia during the fighting could have proved embarrassing. But Michael E. O’Hanlon, a specialist in security issues at the Brookings Institution, argues that “Saakashvili possibly knew that he’d better not do anything with U.S. troops still on the ground.” It’s also possible, O’Hanlon said, that Saakashvili decided on the strike because he was buoyed by the successful round of Georgian-US. military training.
And perhaps more serious than the American pullout itself, only days before the Georgian attack, was “the broader perception in Russia that the United States was abetting this type of behavior,” O’Hanlon added.