WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took time Sept. 7 during his first official visit to Georgia to have lunch with U.S. Marines and afterward, alongside Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, talk with U.S. and Georgian service members at the Krtsanisi Training Area, or KTA, outside Tbilisi.
The visit is part of a six-day international trip, the secretary’s 16th, that included participation in the NATO summit hosted by the United Kingdom in Wales last week and meetings with government and military leaders in Georgia and Turkey.
Speaking through a translator, Alasania welcomed Hagel to Georgia.
A longstanding relationship
“The United States of America is the strongest and most reliable ally our country has that contributes greatly to the enhancement of Georgia's defense capabilities,” he told the assembled troops.
The KTA is one of the primary training areas for the Georgian armed forces and is the home of U.S. European Command’s Georgia Deployment Program. The GDP was piloted as a two-year training program of four six-month rotations of forces trained in infantry counterinsurgency tactics, techniques and procedures. Because of its success it was extended through this year.
Georgian Armed Forces units have trained at KTA with U.S. Marine Corps and Army trainers and advisors since 2004.
“I'm really proud to state that our military fights side by side with the American military, strengthening and supporting international peace,” Alasania said, adding, “We are especially proud that our guest … was a military man himself who was wounded in a combat operation and was awarded [medals as a result].”
Hagel thanked the defense minister, telling the troops that he and the minister have known each other since Hagel was a U.S. senator.
“I know his commitment to the country and people of Georgia and I know of his commitment to the American-Georgian friendship and partnership,” Hagel said, adding that the recent NATO summit accomplished a great deal to enhance and expand the relationship among the NATO countries with Georgia.
Before taking questions from the troops, Hagel offered greetings from President Barack Obama and described three priorities the president places on the United States and Hagel places on the Defense Department.
First, he said, “every institution is only as good as its people. You take care of your people. Second, capabilities: We can't ask our Marines and our Georgian soldiers to go into combat without the capability and the edge you must have. Third, an enhancement and enlargement and a focus on partner capability building.”
Hagel said he knows the Georgians share the same priorities -- people, capabilities and partners.
“I believe if there was ever a time in the world that partnerships are going to be important -- not just for the threats we face today but future threats, unknowns -- it is today,” the secretary added.
Hagel said he wanted to come to Georgia immediately after the NATO summit to emphasize to the people of Georgia how much the United States values their relationship.
“I very much appreciate my day here,” he said, “… to have the opportunities that President Obama wants to assure -- that we share our thinking and the continued reassurance and commitment of our partnership, and the expansion of that partnership.”
Questions from the troops involved the military capabilities Georgia would build as the result of its new partnership status with NATO, and whether other countries had received similar changes in partnership status at the summit.
Enhanced NATO status
“The enhanced partnership status that Georgia has just received at NATO is going to expand significantly defense capabilities -- training, equipping, partnership possibilities -- for Georgia with all of the NATO partners,” Hagel explained.
This status and relationship will give Georgia new abilities, he added.
“One of the things that the defense minister and I were discussing this morning are some of the specific areas that we can now take action on to … provide Georgia wider, deeper military capabilities to defend itself and continue to be an important and effective partner with the United States, as you have been and are in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan.”
Hagel said five countries were included in the special partnership -- Georgia, Australia, Finland, Sweden and Jordan.
“Each of those countries has played a significant role, an important role, in … different events and partnering with the United States, and many of the events have included Georgia as well as other NATO countries,” the secretary said.
“As we expand opportunities for more partners to participate with the United States and NATO, this will enhance Georgia and other countries,” Hagel added, “as we all focus on common interests, common threats, common challenges, and how we, as nations who value freedom and independence and respect for all opinions … how all of us can work together to achieve that objective worldwide.”
A model partnership
Hagel called the Georgia-U.S. partnership a model for other partnerships and relationships that will be established in the future.
“So we build on the relationships we have now, what we've accomplished together, as we expand and build out to bring in more countries, this relationship is particularly important for that reason, among many reasons,” he added.
Through a translator, Alasania said, “Briefly, I would like to add that every serviceman and woman in our country, including myself, defense minister, we are really proud to have a chance to train and fight side by side with the United States Marines.”
He added, “We are really proud to have this strategic relationship. And we truly value and appreciate greatly these special relations that exist here and the input you have and contribution you have to enhance our defense capabilities. This relationship has lasted for more than 10 years, and we hope that will be the case in future.”