The Bush administration is defending plans to send as many as 200 U.S. military trainers to Georgia to help the former Soviet republic deal with guerrillas said to have links to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Russia is criticizing the move, and some members of the U.S. Congress have misgivings.
Administration officials say they do not envisage direct U.S. involvement in anti-guerrilla operations by the Georgian armed forces, and say that reinforcing security in Georgia will benefit everyone in the region including Russia which is leery about the planned aid program.
The Pentagon Wednesday confirmed reports that plans are being made to send as many as 200 U.S. military trainers but perhaps as few as 45 to Georgia to help train its armed forces in counter-terrorism tactics.
U.S. officials have been concerned that members of the al-Qaida network may be among Islamic guerrillas operating in parts of Georgia near the Russian border and using those areas for access to Chechnya.
The decision in principle to send advisers followed a visit to Georgia by a U.S. assessment team. The United States has already provided Georgia with 10 military helicopters to improve the mobility of its armed forces, and may send more.
Russia has been pressing Georgia to crack down on Chechen separatists it claims that country is harboring. But it has sought joint operations with the Georgians, and in Moscow Wednesday, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov made clear Russia does not want U.S. military personnel on its doorstep in Georgia.
Briefing reporters here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials are discussing the issue with Russia and insisted U.S. aid to Georgia would not harm Russian interests:
"The program will assist Georgia in developing the capability to control its own borders, and to conduct limited counter-insurgency operations against terrorist elements," said Mr. Boucher. "In doing this, we are working for the stability and the security of the Caucasus. We believe that Georgia's ability to handle these types of problems on its own is also in Russia's interests. And we've kept Moscow apprised of our intentions, and our plans, for the train and equip program in Georgia, and we would expect to continue to do so."
Mr. Boucher said the United States will be "transparent and open" in explaining the Georgia aid program to Moscow.
The U.S. role in Georgia would be similar to that in the Philippines, where U.S. advisers are training government forces fighting the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group.
On Capitol Hill, senior Democratic Senator Robert Byrd questioned the expanding role of U.S. military personnel in anti-terrorism operations abroad, and warned the Bush administration not to expect a "blank check" from Congress to under-write such activity.