By David Smith
09/28/2011 – For a week last month, US Marines of the 2nd Combat Engineering Battalion and Georgian soldiers of the 33rd Infantry Battalion joined forces in Operation Black Sand in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Deployed to Combat Outpost (COP) Shukvani, they cleared the Ladar Bazaar of improvised explosive devices—bombs. Insurgents had taken over the bazaar, depriving local people of a real market in which to buy and sell everyday goods. Now, Americans and Georgians are building a new market for the people. Operation Black Sand is just one example of how Georgian forces are ready, willing and able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with US Marines in one of the toughest areas of Afghanistan.
SHUKVANI, Helmand province, Afghanistan – Illumination rounds light up the night sky around the Ladar Bazaar helping the Marines to pinpoint enemy positions. The Marines and sailors of 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, partnered with the Republic of Georgia’s 33rd Light Infantry Battalion, leveled the marketplace to ensure the security of area for local residents. (Credit: 2nd Marine Division, 8/6/2011)
The flags of Afghanistan, America and Georgia fly over COP Shukvani. The remote, spartan base is named for First Lieutenant Mukhran Shukvani of the Georgian 31st Infantry Battalion, whose story is told in the September issue of Marine Corps Gazette, a professional journal of the US Marines.
It was September 5, 2010. “In the hot, dry hills northwest of Sangin,” writes the Gazette, “1Lt Shukvani was pushing a small team of Georgian soldiers forward from their dismount position in search of a future patrol base…As 1Lt Shukvani and his team crested one ridge line, they came under small arms fire from well concealed enemy positions…As the company commander rose to determine exactly where the enemy was located, a well-aimed round caught him just above his body armor.” COP Shukvani is the small base that American Marines and Georgian soldiers staked out later that day.
The Gazette asks, “How did 1Lt Shukvani and his soldiers come to be in the treacherous hills of Helmand Province?” A year before Shukvani’s death, Georgia volunteered to do more than its fair share as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. “The Georgian Government had a small number of ‘national caveats’ that had to be honored” if it was to participate in ISAF. Usually, “national caveats” are restrictions on the use of forces from various countries—cannot leave a certain geographic area, cannot conduct offensive operations, cannot operate at night, etc.—that hobble commanders on the ground.
In contrast, writes the Gazette, “The Georgians wanted to train for, and execute, a counterinsurgency (COIN) mission in a full-spectrum operational environment.” In other words, Georgia insisted on taking a full (and dangerous) combat role. Furthermore, Georgia insisted that its units would operate under command of the US Marine Corps. They wanted to serve at the side of the world’s finest fighting force.
The Marine Georgia Training Team arrived in Georgia to train the 31st Battalion at the Krtsanisi Training Area and the Vaziani base, both near Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Their objectives were to train Georgian infantry units in complex operations and full operational capabilities and to develop the professionalism of Georgian sergeants. Moreover, the Marines set out to transition the training from American to Georgian hands. Today, writes the Gazette, “Georgians actually provide the training in many of these cases with Marines only providing quality control or sharing the latest tactics, techniques and procedures from Afghanistan.”
After training in Georgia, each Afghanistan-bound Georgian battalion completes the cycle with a mission rehearsal exercise in Hohenfels, Germany. In an environment in which all politics must be laid aside, the US Marine Corps takes responsibility to certify that the Georgian unit is deployment ready. You can bet that the Marines undertake this task very seriously—if they are wrong, Marines could die.
In training and in real wartime experience in Afghanistan, the Marines have come to respect their Georgian allies—and Marines are not people to give idle praise.
“These guys are in the fight, they want to fight and they want us to teach them how to fight, which is the beauty of it,” Major Andrew Del Gaudio, then top Marine trainer in Georgia, said in the April 6 edition of another publication, the Marine Corps Times.
“They’re really good troops,” Major General Richard Mills, former Marine commander in Afghanistan, told the Marine Corps Times. “Their officers tend to lead from the front and tend to expose themselves often to danger. They’ve taken some casualties, and yet they have remained focused and remained on task and bounced back very, very quickly.”
General Mills could have been referring to Lt Shukvani.
“They are not afraid to fight and they know their tactics,” said Carlton Kent the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. “They’re side by side with us over there, and the Marines who are over there with them say positive things about them. They are sacrificing just like everyone else. They are pulling their load.”
That is big stuff coming from the top Marine sergeant!
Of course, there are problems also. Mills points to deficiencies in communications and logistics. However, writes the Gazette, “The most significant issue has been equipping Georgian battalions for full-spectrum COIN operations in a manner commensurate with their tactical tasks.”
That is a problem that ought to be fixed for a force that is ready, willing and able—or so say the US Marines!
And may God bless Mukhran Shukvani.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.