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Gen. Hertling’s trip report: Security and conflict in the Caucasus region, not frozen

Gen. Hertling’s trip report: Security and conflict in the Caucasus region, not frozen

By Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, US Army

Best Defense guest columnist

The Caucasus — that historical causeway of conflict between Europe and the Middle East — remains a complicated tangle of security concerns. Ethnic tensions still affect long standing territorial disputes, internally displaced indigenous people align with or oppose powerful diasporas, and an increasing nouveau riche — an oil-fueled minority upper class — is growing in an area once known only for desperate poverty.

While the Minsk Group spearheads the OSCE’s efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan both remain frustrated with the lack of political resolve; military leaders on both sides proudly and unjustifiably claim they could "settle it" quickly. The recent Georgian experience with Russia has left significant cross-border scars that will likely not heal anytime soon, especially as Georgia desperately seeks NATO membership and European acceptance. The spider-web relations between Iran and Israel with many of those in this region confuses even the experts; and the border between Turkey and many of her allies — especially Armenia — are subject to political resolution of multi-generational disputes between those two countries.

All of these factors exist in a crucible surrounded on three sides by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. The potential for conflict is considered so plausible and the issues related to the interaction so confusing that a few years ago the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command developed scenarios linked to the Caucasus to help prepare Majors for military contingencies. The U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth uses the "GAAT" (Georgia-Armenia-Azerbaijan-Turkey) exercise as a thread of continuity throughout the course. Understandably there is no right or wrong answers to any of the questions posed to young field grade officers in the course, but the underlying conflict scenarios meet the requirement to analyze and exercise an extremely complex Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational resolution.

During a recent U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) command visit to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, my young aide de camp — a recent graduate of Leavenworth — pronounced after accompanying me that she wished she had visited these countries before participating in "the GAAT." After observing the meetings with the regions’ visionary political leadership, and seeing the capabilities of the emerging non-conscript militaries and the unique differences between the younger generation of professional leaders and the older generation of Soviet-trained generals, she proclaimed: "this is very different from what I learned in the classrooms at Leavenworth, Kansas."

There were some tensions, to be sure. But there was also reason for optimism.

European Command’s strategy of Theater Security Cooperation — and USAREUR’s contribution as part of that strategy in training and exercising with the militaries and engaging with military and political leaders — is bearing significant results. The four nations that make up "the GAAT" are integrating forces in NATO out of theater and peacekeeping operations in places like Afghanistan and Kosovo, and the potential for peaceful management of the region’s substantial security challenges is improving.

Georgia has participated in ISAF since 2005 and has provided a caveat-free battalion under U.S. command since 2010. This contribution is set to double in October of this year. The Georgian military leadership is now requesting USAREUR’s support to train a brigade-sized command and control element for their increasingly capable and dramatically more professional force. Armenia has recently volunteered to send forces to the continuing Kosovo peacekeeping operation under U.S. command, after their partnership deployment with Greece ended due to the fiscal crisis in that country. Even while engaged in the poorly-named "frozen conflict" of Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K), both Armenia and Azerbaijan deploy company-sized elements to Afghanistan, under German and Turkish commands, respectively. Indeed, the fact that Azerbaijan and Armenia have both created brigade-sized peacekeeping and NATO-compatible units is an extremely positive development. Remarkably, both nations have developed these forces as a distinct military branch for the express purpose of participating in multinational operations. These units, which are specifically non-aligned with operations in N-K conflict, are largely manned by professional soldiers, not conscripts, and are led by English-speaking, western-trained officers. At a glance during my visit, they also appear better trained than line forces occupying positions along the NK line-of-contact.

The infusion of values and the concept of a "profession of arms" are taking hold in the younger elements of the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani officer corps, who are often trained in the west through the Individual Military Education and Training (IMET) program. The differences between these younger leaders — many of whom have already taken command in key positions — and the older Soviet-trained generals are palpable. In Georgia, for example, the Chief of the Army is exceedingly young, but in two years of engagement I have watched him grow into a mature and dedicated leader of his relatively small Army. The younger Battalion and Brigade Commanders in Armenia and Azerbaijan — many of whom received education at the Army’s War College at Carlisle or at Leavenworth — also exhibit a professional character found in more advanced security forces. Several of these Armies are also focusing on growing a professional NCO corps; this is one of the more significant signs of emerging and quantifiable progress. The younger, visionary political leaders know these aspects of a professional force are critical for further democratization and inclusion in European and NATO organizations.

As the world’s security focus shifts away from ISAF, and the National Security Strategy of the U.S. "rebalances" toward the Pacific, USAREUR continues to look at the Caucasus countries in the same way that we view the others that make up the European Area of Responsibility; as partners in future coalitions.

The forward presence of U.S. forces in various parts of the world is critical to an expansion of security cooperation and partner capacity building. Our forward presence in Europe eliminates the tyranny of distance, and it significantly enables realistic training and exercises with security forces of all different nations. But more than that, our presence builds trust; something that rotational forces cannot do to the same degree as those who share the continent. All these factors are necessary elements in reassuring political and military officials that there is a peaceful solution to regional tensions, and that other security challenges are best met working closely — and daily — with regional allies. Forward presence reinforces the reality that the United States is a committed partner in maintaining regional security.

Having seen the potential for conflict, and the continued methods of resolving conflict, I am excited about the future of security and conflict resolution in the Caucuses. That optimism is borne out by the progress made by Georgian, Armenian and Azeri security forces. Each country is, in different capacities, building a base of military professionalism and reform, and is ensuring a more peaceful security for their nations.

The Caucasus’ position as a geographical, cultural, and political epicenter means that movements -positive and negative — in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan reverberate well beyond the local region. With America’s continued support, the Caucuses will remain a source of stable, reliable, interoperable partners who are the foundation of future regional and global security.

Lieutenant General Mark Hertling is the current Commanding General, U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, where he is responsible for training U.S. Army Soldiers and units for Contingency and Full Spectrum Operations, enhancing Theater Security Cooperation, and Building Partner Capacity with 51 allied nations that are part of the European area of operation. Prior to this posting, he served as the DCG for Initial Military Training at TRADOC and previous to that the Commander of the 1st Armored Division, where the unit was deployed to Northern Iraq as Task Force Iron.