By C. J. CHIVERS and THOM SHANKER
Published: December 17, 2008
WASHINGTON — The Georgian military, which was routed in August during a brief war with Russia, suffers from widespread mismanagement and unqualified leadership, and is in need of extensive reforms to become a modern fighting force, according to a classified Pentagon assessment conducted this fall.
The assessment, by a team of American military officers that worked quietly in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in October and November, offers a clinical view of a politicized military culture and substandard practices in a country lobbying to join NATO while embroiled in two bloody territorial disputes with Russia.
The assessment underscores the difficult choices to be faced by President-elect Barack Obama, whose foreign policy team will be balancing decisions on how to engage Georgia against concerns that commitments to assist its military will further inflame Russia.
The report, portions of which were shown to The New York Times by a person concerned about the poor readiness of Georgia’s military, made implicitly clear that after more than a decade of American training and nearly five years of heavy investment by President Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s military remains immature and ill prepared.
Georgia’s armed forces, the report said, are highly centralized, prone to impulsive rather than deliberative decision making, undermined by unclear lines of command and led by senior officials who were selected for personal relationships rather than professional qualifications.
Moreover, according to the report, Georgia’s military lacks basic elements of a modern military bureaucracy, ranging from a sound national security doctrine to clear policies for handling classified material to a personnel-management system to guide soldiers through their careers.
In recent years, Georgia has presented itself as an eager if lightly qualified partner in NATO and American-led military missions abroad. Its soldiers have participated in deployments to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, where its troop contingent became the third largest national contribution.
This month in Brussels, the 26 member nations of NATO reaffirmed their intention of eventually allowing Georgia and its armed forces of about 30,000 troops to join. But they did not offer a detailed set of programs, known as a Membership Action Plan, for Georgia’s accession — a sign regarded as a setback for swift membership.
The decision to decelerate Georgia’s NATO ambitions was largely political. Several countries expressed worries that backing Georgia would harm relations with Russia, which has cast Mr. Saakashvili’s government as erratic and has objected to further NATO expansion in the former Soviet sphere.
Many Western diplomats and military officers have also voiced misgivings about the behavior and judgment of the Georgian government. After years of provocations by Georgia and Russia alike, Georgia launched an attack in August against the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. The attack was stymied by a large-scale Russian invasion and the defeat of the Georgian Army on its home soil.
American and Georgian officials have said the postwar military assessment, which was conducted by the United States European Command, was not a factor in the NATO decision.
“We did not do our assessment with the guidance to determine if Georgia is ready for NATO membership,” Gen. John Craddock, the American officer who leads the European Command, said in an interview. “Our assessment was: As a result of the August conflict, give me the state of the Georgian armed forces.”
The assessment showed, however, the degree to which Georgia’s military would have to improve, in practical terms, to be ready for NATO membership should political objections recede.
It also served as a stark message that the readiness of Georgia’s military was not as Georgia had portrayed it.
Georgia has framed its military revival since Mr. Saakashvili came to power in early 2004 as a grand achievement and an indicator of the country’s progress.
The military Mr. Saakashvili inherited was a Red Army orphan: small, decrepit, badly trained and poorly equipped. In the early 1990s the Georgian Army lost two wars against Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Some of its troops were accused of committing war crimes. (Abkhaz and Ossetian forces have also been accused of ugly battlefield excesses.)
Mr. Saakashvili purchased new arms and vehicles, raised salaries, built new bases, increased the country’s collaboration with the Pentagon and urged the armed forces to emulate Western practices, in part by encouraging volunteer soldiers.
The Georgian military appeared to be transforming. American officers praised a few of their Georgian counterparts in Iraq. And Eduard Kokoity, the president of South Ossetia, said the Georgian military was much more prepared and capable in its initial attack in August than it had been in the past.
But as the war drew into a second day and Russian forces flowed into South Ossetia, the Georgian military quickly broke down. Many commanders were reduced to communicating by cellphone. The army fired cluster munitions on its own villages. Many units fled, abandoning equipment, ammunition and their own dead.
According to the assessment’s report, some of the problems should have been unsurprising. Georgia’s armed forces, the assessment found, lack “the doctrine, institutional training and the experience needed to effectively command and control organizations throughout the chain of command.”
In another section, the report added: “Collaborative planning and sharing of information does not take place due to culture and organizational stove-pipes. As a result, coordinated efforts are essentially nonexistent.”
An American officer who has worked alongside the Georgian military and was familiar with the assessment said that the American team also found that Georgia had a poor grasp of military intelligence, and did not collect or share its intelligence in an organized fashion. This, in the officer’s view, contributed to failures in August.
“One of the reasons they got into the war is that their command and control is a mess,” the officer said. “They have no ability to process and analyze strategic information and provide it to decision makers in a systematic way.” The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the assessment.
The report also took a dim view of Georgia’s senior military leaders, noting that the process for choosing defense officials “is based on personal relationships and not tied to education, training or any system of performance evaluation.”
Since the report was shared with Georgia, Mr. Saakashvili has shuffled the Defense Ministry’s leadership, although it is not clear that military experience has been given primacy in the choices.
Early this month he dismissed an ally, Davit Kezerashvili, the 30-year-old defense minister who held the post during the war, and replaced him with Vasil Sikharulidze. The new minister is a trained psychiatrist and another Saakashvili ally who had served as the ambassador to the United States.
Both American and Georgian officials said the assessment was not complete. The United States military, along with NATO officials, plans to provide recommendations to the Defense Ministry intended to improve Georgia’s readiness.
It was not immediately clear when the recommendations might be provided. Georgia has been reluctant to discuss the assessment or its findings.
In October, Batu Kutelia, Georgia’s first deputy minister of defense, declined to comment on the assessment. This month, after The New York Times had read portions of the assessment, he spoke about it without addressing its main findings, saying they were classified.
Mr. Kutelia insisted, however, that NATO’s assessment of Georgia’s military for the past two or three years, including an assessment this fall, was “very positive and underlined significant achievement.” The claim could not be confirmed because NATO’s assessments have not been made public.
In an e-mail message Mr. Kutelia said that the Pentagon assessment had been performed at Georgia’s request as part of a “very responsible” postwar review.
“We have asked our strategic partners, as it is usually the case after every war, to help us in identifying the shortfalls in our defense system and for that purpose to conduct the comprehensive diagnostics,” he wrote.
A senior official in Washington said that the assessment had found significant shortcomings, and that Georgia and its Western supporters would have to decide how to proceed.
“We did an honest job,” the officials said. “And we said to them, ‘You should know you need to make some changes if you want to have a professional military force.’ ”
Thom Shanker reported from Washington, Brussels and Kabul, Afghanistan, and C. J. Chivers from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Kabul.