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Background Briefing En Route to Georgia

Presenter: Senior Defense Official
December 05, 2003
Senior Defense Official:  Okay, schedule first.


     The first thing we're going to do, I think we're going to switch around our schedule, so the first thing I believe we're going to do and I haven't gotten confirmation yet is go see the Georgia Train and Equip facility that we have.  So that will be the first thing on the schedule.  Walk around there.  See a few things.  We've got about 70 Americans there involved as trainers, contractors.  The training is being done by the Marine Corps.  It had been done earlier by -- who was it that we had?  I'll get that to you.  It's 70 guys.


     They're just wrapping up the training of the 4th Infantry Battalion and that will be wrapped up I think in about a week or two.  So that's been going on now for about a year and some months.  It's a $64 million program.


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  No, because we haven't -- the question of how we're going to follow this up is not clear.  We haven't completely fleshed it out.  We're trying to deal with the Georgians about what needs to be done and I think our view is that sustaining the capabilities they have, working on their headquarters, kind of getting their headquarters staff functioning better, some of their internal reforms would be higher priorities and expanding training more forces of this kind.


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  It's an infantry battalion, so --


     Q:  (Inaudible.) training or --


     Senior Defense Official:  The whole genesis of this idea was to provide them more effective abilities in the counter-terrorist area.  Pankisi Gorge which you may know is a small area in Georgia that has been infiltrated with terrorists and Chechnyan terrorists, that was what prompted the President to say we want to help you to deal with the terrorist problem.  That was in I think October of 2001.  We all went back to the interagency and said how can we best implement this decision?  We created this Train and Equip Program.  So that's the history of it.


     To date the Georgians have really done what they've needed to do.  Basic things that we take for granted, like how to build your systems, contracts with the soldiers who are participating in the program so that they're not getting the training and then leaving with in a couple of months.  Then you lose that capability.  In a way this training program is going to be kind of a nucleus for modernization within the Georgian military. 


     So that will be the first thing we do.


     Q:  (Inaudible.) a year?


     Senior Defense Official:  $64 million program as a whole and it's gone on for a little over a year.


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  I believe they started -- it's about a year.  I can give you the exact start date.


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  Well we're almost wrapped up.  Four infantry battalions and another company.  We did some headquarters staff training in the beginning.


     Q:  How many have been trained, do you think?  Do you have any, can you give us a number?


     Senior Defense Official:  Their battalion size is a little smaller than ours.  I'll give you a number.


     Q:  Did you say that American contractors are doing the training?  Or --


     Senior Defense Official:  There is some contractor support in terms of the facility that was built, and it's Marines.


     The next meeting we're going to have is going to be a combined meeting with four key players.  Nino Burjanadze who is the Acting President; Zurab Zhvania who is the Acting State Minister; Tedo Japaridze who is the Acting Foreign Minister, former National Security Advisor to Shevardnadze; and Mikhail Saakashvili who is the Chairman of the Tbilisi City Council.  That's going to be a group meeting.


     The Secretary has met in the past, he's met Nino Burjanadze before in her role as Speaker of the Parliament and (Inaudible.) Zhvania, also in this role.  But he hasn't met the others.  And Tedo Japaridze, I can't remember if he's met him before or not.  He's been to Washington and met with the Deputy several times.  Saakashvili I don't believe the Secretary has met in the past.  So that's going to be a group meeting.


     My sense is that they've got a couple of really pressing concerns. One is the Russian issue that we talked about before.  All the concerns that a country like Uzbekistan might have are totally magnified in a place like Georgia which has three separatist areas, about 5,000 Russian troops are still there, some under the CIS command, the part of that whole force that needs to be withdrawn in accordance with the Istanbul Accords.


     The Russians have consistently put pressure on them every winter by cutting off their gas and things like that. So my sense is that we will hear a lot about their concerns about what Russian intentions are and about the stability of their country, and what can be done about that.


     So that's what I've anticipated. We'll give you a read-out afterwards.


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  I think the Secretary's going to emphasize the U.S. is committed to a stable Georgia.  We support, there's going to be presidential elections in January, January 4th.  We think that's a very good thing.  We want to help them on reforms. This could be a good opportunity for reforms not just in the Ministry of Defense but also in other parts of the government.  Rooting out corruption, they've had an endemic corruption problem.  And I think he will also make the point that we support, that we want Russia to fulfill its Istanbul commitments to pull their troops out.  That Georgia is strategically important in terms of the war on terrorism.  It's part of the Caucus Corridor which is important for overflight.  It's also strategically important in terms of energy as the DTP (Inaudible.) pipeline which is going to be completed by the end of next year.


     Q:  The White House announced last week that a delegation was coming over, interdepartmental, to help assess needs.  There were some DoD people involved.  People from your staff?  Who came over?


     Senior Defense Official:  We actually sent someone from the European command, the J5, Major General Jeff Kohler.  We worked very closely with -- OSD works seamlessly.  They're the ones on the ground that do all the military cooperation activities.


     Q:  What's your intelligence assessment on the situation on the ground there now?  It’s been a little bit of time between the protests and Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation.  How volatile?  How concerned do you think the United States is at this point with the stability of the situation there?


     Senior Defense Official:  Obviously I can't talk about any kind of intelligence stuff.  What I've heard is that the situation is calm on the ground in terms of there aren't people on the streets, but the potential for instability is, I mean it's there and real.  The separatist regions are very destabilizing.  What you want is, over time you really want Georgia to be an integrated country which can control or exert control over all its territory.  Right now you have a situation where in place (Inaudible.), it's ungoverned space from the point of view of the government.  So in any kind of situation like that you end up, it's not just a corruption issue.  You have the mob, you have illegal smuggling, trafficking, those kinds of things that you would worry about.


     So yeah, we're concerned about stability.  That's why the U.S. government is paying a lot of attention to it from the White House down to the individual agencies.  Whether it's Treasury on the financial front or us on the military front or the State Department on the assistance front.


     Q:  What role has Russia been playing in all of this?  How do you see the Russian role in this?  Are they stirring up trouble with the separatists?  What's their objective here?


     Senior Defense Official:  I don't know what their objective is, but it would seem to me if I were Russia I'd want a stable country on my borders.  But clearly their support for separatists in Abkhazia and elsewhere contradicts that kind of a common sense objective.  So you'd have to ask them.


     I think it would be a good thing to maybe ask the Georgians basically what do they feel in terms of if the Russians are stirring up the pot there.  I'd rather not -- We're waiting to hear from them on how they assess the situation and what they see going on in their own country.


     Q:  Is that at all like Azerbaijan is for future basing or access arrangements?


     Senior Defense Official:  Since our review's underway --


     Q:  Will you be talking to them in the same way that you talk to --


     Senior Defense Official:  We don't have any facilities we're using there right now, so we couldn't talk to them in the same way that we talk to -- We don't have ongoing operations out of there.


     Q:  (Inaudible.) the way you talk to Azerbaijan, will you be talking to Georgia?


     Senior Defense Official:  I think right now our focus has been on defense reform and other issues there from a military perspective.  Their facilities, it's just a basic fact that the facilities in Georgia are just in very poor shape.  They haven't had the funds.  They're a very poor country and they haven't had the resources to kind of even upkeep in a basic way the facilities.


     So when we came in to do the train and equip program, we had to kind of built something in a way from scratch.   It's not permanent structures, but basic facilities.


     The Turks have had some very useful cooperation with the Georgians.  They rebuilt (Inaudible.), an air base, (Inaudible.) air base where one of the, which is going to house some of our trained, most of the forces, (U.S.) trained and equipped battalion is going to be brought into the 11th Brigade there.  But the bottom line is they have to go from scratch and build barracks and classrooms and a clinic.  They really had very poor facilities.  It's a different kind of circumstance.


     Q/A:  [Went off the record, returned to the record.]


     Q:  -- Malaysia and not Georgia that we saw.  Just in the wake of Shevardnadze's departure it appears --


     Senior Defense Official:  But again, I don't remember.  I can't tell you that I didn't have Georgia on something two weeks ago.  We literally go through a number of iterations.  I'm just being transparent on the process.  It made a lot more sense as we got closer and saw what the situation was.  But as someone who used to handle this part of the world, I always put countries (Inaudible.) at the top of the list.  (Laughter.)


     Q:  (Inaudible.)


     Senior Defense Official:  Yeah.


     Q:  After Shevardnadze resigned, Mr. Saakashvili expressed concern there would be a military coup d'etat and then repeated it for a couple of days.  I've been out of the loop for about 48 hours.  I don't know if he said it in the last day or two.  But is there a real chance of some sort of a military takeover?


     Senior Defense Official:  Georgia military?


     Q:  Yes.


     Senior Defense Official:  I'm not familiar with that.


     Q:  That was his chief concern immediately following the resignation.


     Senior Defense Official:  I don't think I've heard it.  So I don't -- my sense is that I haven't heard it recently.  I don't think that's a concern any more, but I wouldn't want to speak for Saakashvili.


     Q:  Mr. Rumsfeld's last trip to Georgia was 2001?


     Senior Defense Official:  Yeah, December.  Around the time of the Ministerial, December 2001.


     Q:  (Inaudible.) this region basically.


     Q:  2001 did you say?


     Senior Defense Official:  2001.  And it was right before I think the NATO Ministerial.


     Q:  Can you give us a quick summary of the Istanbul commitment?  When were they made, what do they involve?


     Senior Defense Official:  They involve, for Moldova and Georgia they involve withdrawing forces and equipment.  In Georgia I think they withdrew most of their equipment, closed one of their bases, but still have another one open and still have about somewhere between 2500 and 3000 troops that are supposed to be withdrawn.  They've been negotiating with the Georgians, negotiating probably with the Georgians on this, with various timelines, saying it's going to take them ten years, it's going to take them 13 years, it's going to take them 14 years.  There just hasn't been any progress.


     Part of it has been Georgia doesn't have any leverage.  Their energy's -- they're dependent on Russia for their energy.  They’ve mostly Russian companies building their energy infrastructure.  They've got the troops there, they've got separatists that get support from the Russians, special (Inaudible.) [regime cells].  It's a tough position to be negotiating from.


     Q:  What year were the commitments?


     Senior Defense Official:  1999.  There was a meeting in Istanbul, which is why it's called the Istanbul Accords.


     Q:  The  withdrawal is to be completed by when?


     Senior Defense Official:  By 2000 they were supposed to have either withdrawn or have an agreement with the government on what the withdrawal would be.


     Q:  A promise by Yeltsin also in 1999 that they would be out by July 2001?


     Senior Defense Official:  Possibly.  I don't know.


     Q:  On the numbers of Russian troops in Georgia, is it 5,000 total Russian troops?


     Senior Defense Official:  There are about 5,000 total troops but not all of them are captured under the Istanbul Accords. They form the bulk of CIS peacekeepers in Abkhazia.


     Q:  (Inaudible.) supposed to be withdrawn?


     Senior Defense Official:  Yeah. It's just they're under different auspices.  So some of them weren't captured in the Istanbul Accords.


     Q:  Half of the 5,000 are supposed to be withdrawn.


     Senior Defense Official:  Approximately.


     Q:  You brought up the Pankisi Gorge as being one of the original things that got the attention of the Bush Administration to pay a lot more attention to the area.  At that time there was concern that there was al Qaeda influence or support for al Qaeda there.  There were reports that American Special Forces actually went in there to find them and root them out.


     Can you give us just a quick idea of what the status of the Gorge is in terms of if it still is a breeding ground for terrorism or have those people been wiped out of there?


     Senior Defense Official:  The Georgians have done quite a bit to try to gain control of the situation.  We're going to ask people what they think the situation is like right now.  That's going to be one of the things we'll raise with them.  But they did do quite a bit to try to clean up the situation there.


     Q:  Are there Special Forces there?  Are there still U.S. Special Forces there?


     [No audible response.]


     Q:  Thank you very much.

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