U.S. Military Builds Alliances Across Europe
By Dana Priest
When the Slovak army wanted to create an elite rapid deployment battalion last year, an officer on the general staff walked down the stairs of the Soviet-era military headquarters here and into the office of three U.S. military advisers.
Yes, the Americans said, they would arrange for soldiers from the United States to show Slovak field commanders how to organize the unit. No, they said, they would not equip it with U.S. sniper rifles.
Although U.S. foreign policymakers kept the Slovak government at arm's length for several years to show displeasure with the slow pace of democratic reforms, the U.S. military has been intimately involved in remaking the 42,000-strong Slovak army. In twos and threes, hundreds of American officers have come each year to help the Soviet-trained force shrink to an affordable size, decentralize decision-making, accept a rational budget system and submit to control by civilian leaders.
The U.S. military is doing the same thing in 13 countries across Central and Eastern Europe, with plans to expand into the Caucasus and the recently independent states on Russia's southern border. Once the target of U.S. nuclear weapons, these countries are now the site of the most far-reaching new U.S. military-to-military contacts anywhere in the world.
The goal of the American effort is to create "a security sphere across Eastern Europe," Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's top commander and the head of the U.S. European Command, said in an interview.
The result is an informal alliance that parallels NATO but is more acutely reliant on its American benefactor. Through the export of U.S. military doctrine and training, the United States has built on widespread aspirations to join NATO to claim a prominent role in the security arrangements of more than two dozen countries.
"There is a great hunger for American values, ideas and security. They want to see Americans, they want to be touched by Americans," Clark said. "Against all of their historical experience, against all the times they have sought to be with the West and not been protected by the West, they still look to the West. They have these hopes."
Many current and former U.S. officials share this epic view.
"I don't know of any historical precedent or any other country doing this in this way," said William J. Perry, who was a guiding force behind the military outreach as defense secretary during the first Clinton administration. "There are large risks of failure. What we're doing is very difficult and improbable . . . but doing nothing guarantees failure."
Critics see a host of other risks in the U.S. approach. They fear the administration is extending American security commitments to an unstable region without public debate. Some argue that the effort distracts the military from its central mission of being prepared to fight wars. Others question whether the American-led reorganization -- which includes big increases in U.S. weapons transfers -- is encouraging a costly and destabilizing arms race.
Some Russia experts say that Moscow, already skittish about the expansion of NATO, may react negatively to an even larger American shadow. U.S. officials "dangerously misread Russia. They think it will be like post-'45 Germany. I think they are dead wrong," said Stephen J. Blank, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. "We are expanding our sphere of influence at the expense of the Russians."
"Peacetime engagement," as the Pentagon calls it, has become a central mission of the U.S. military since the end of the Cold War. American special operations forces have reached out to the militaries of at least 110 countries, including every country in Latin America, through exercises and training missions. Naval vessels and military leaders now routinely visit nations in Africa and Asia that were once off-limits or considered strategically insignificant. The U.S. military is cultivating ties in places as unlikely as war-wrecked Algeria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
But nothing rivals the scope or stakes of the involvement in Central and Eastern Europe. American advisers have conducted top-to-bottom assessments of the armed forces of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania and have written the blueprints for their remodeling. In the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia, they are revamping command-and-control systems. In 15 countries, U.S. and European allies have installed computers for a new budgeting and acquisition system. American advisers have drafted military codes of justice and tactical war-fighting doctrine, and have given some forces their first look at sophisticated special operations equipment.
U.S. officials have made the greatest inroads where the transition to democracy is most advanced, such as in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which have been admitted to NATO with U.S. sponsorship. In what officials call a crucial step, for example, Poland is allowing an eight-man U.S. military team to help reshuffle its insular general staff, which has resisted transferring control over troops to civilian authorities. The Americans say they will help Poland create a NATO-style joint staff tied to an interagency political process like that in the United States.
In other countries, U.S. involvement has been slowed by lingering suspicion and tradition. In Bulgaria, where a pro-communist government kept Americans at bay until an electoral upset last year, the U.S. team has had little contact with Bulgarian officers and few U.S.-trained Bulgarians have been promoted upon their return from U.S. training.
Much of the U.S. effort has been carried out under the Partnership for Peace, a NATO program involving 27 non-NATO countries that is designed to bring militaries up to NATO standards through multilateral exercises and defense restructuring. The partnership program is also a nonaggression pact and includes the right of members to request high-level NATO consultations in times of crisis. While European militaries also play a role in the program, its agenda and budget are dominated by Americans.
But the enterprising character of U.S. engagement is best captured by a little-known initiative called the Joint Contact Team Program (JCTP). The program is run by the Stuttgart-based U.S. European Command, with no direct involvement by NATO.
On an annual budget of $20 million -- less than the price of an average F-16 fighter jet -- the program assigns four- or five-person teams to work in the defense ministries or general staff offices of 13 countries. The teams arrange exchanges that this year have brought some 1,400 U.S. military personnel to the region to teach and train 100,000 troops, according to the European Command. Another 1,400 Eastern European officers have traveled to the United States or to U.S. bases in Europe for classroom training and seminars.
The program has had an entrepreneurial flair since its start in 1992, when Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a team to advise Hungary on everything from ordering uniforms to creating a military legal system. As protection from the cumbersome and political Pentagon budgeting process, the program was initially paid for from a discretionary fund held by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To work within congressional prohibitions on training foreign troops, the visits by U.S. military experts are called "exchanges" and the experts are called "contact teams" rather than trainers.
To avoid congressional and military service budget fights that a larger program would attract, most military advisers are not even on the payroll of the JCTP: They are on "temporary duty" assignments that do not appear on Pentagon ledgers. Only 13 people on the JCTP's staff of 115 are permanently assigned to the program. The program also relies on hundreds of National Guard members from 13 states that are paired with East European countries. Guard members make up 20 percent of the U.S. personnel needed for the small expert visits abroad.
Sometimes the visits take on as much a diplomatic flavor as a military one. This summer, for example, the Illinois National Guard arrived for an exchange in Poland with a delegation of 55 of the state's civic and financial leaders. "It's something apart from the traditional military sense, it's quasi-military," said Lt. Col. John Chojnacki, a homicide detective with the Chicago police and a member of the team in Poland.
Sometimes an American military team is the only U.S. representative on the ground, as in Albania in 1993, when a military team became that isolated country's first contact with a Western government since World War II. Team members routinely have greater access and contact with foreign military leaders than the defense attaches assigned to U.S. embassies. Some analysts say the JCTP is an example of how the Pentagon is eclipsing the State Department as the most visible agent of U.S. foreign policy overseas.
"The State Department has become a very small organization, mostly underfunded and undermanned," said Andrew Nichols Pratt, a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany and a former Marine colonel. "Engagement is easier for the military. We have the infrastructure and the educational programs. The military has the ability to move around and we have the resources."
Where the U.S. military's influence has taken hold, the impact can be pervasive.
On the grassy hills outside a noncommissioned officer corps academy in Kaunas, Lithuania -- a campus modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps academy -- Lithuanian army Maj. Kestutis Kurselis recently watched as a platoon of recruits moved toward a mock enemy camp.
"The camouflage, that's American. The way they wear their gear, that's American," whispered Kurselis, commander of the academy. "All these maneuvers and patrol techniques we learned from the Americans. For two years we've concentrated on small-unit tactics."
What Kurselis is doing with his young noncommissioned officers is precisely what a team of high-level Pentagon officials recommended for Lithuania, which had few machine guns and not a single tank or combat aircraft when it regained its independence at the end of the Cold War.
During an assessment this year of the Lithuanian army, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Henry A. Kievenaar Jr. sent an American team to every active air base and naval facility, and on inspections of companies and platoons. The team's findings have become "our road map," said Jonas Kronkaitis, Lithuania's vice defense minister.
"General Kievenaar's focus was on quality of life, we agree. He said we ought to close two air bases, we agree," said Kronkaitis, who grew up in the United States and once worked at Virginia-based Atlantic Research Corp. "He said `Don't enlarge your navy,' we agreed with that. He said `Don't pay for jet fighters,' and we agreed with that."
The Lithuanian army has mimicked other aspects of the U.S. national security apparatus. It has a National Security Council-style policy body, a Joint Chiefs of Staff command structure, and a U.S.-style national guard. Its Training and Doctrine Command is based on the U.S. Army command of the same name, a coastal defense battalion follows the Marine Corps structure, and its "Jaeger Battalion" is inspired by U.S. Special Forces.
Lithuania hopes to be admitted soon to NATO while trying to preserve its good relations with Russia, whose heavily militarized enclave abuts Lithuania's southwestern border. To show its commitment, it has increased defense spending by 50 percent in the last year, to $153 million. Lithuania's Parliament has pledged further increases.
A seven-member JCTP team was on the ground in Vilnius, the capital, four months before the last Russian troops left in 1993. Today, four U.S. officers work out of the stone National Guard headquarters. Inside a small suite of offices are computers, a bookcase of U.S. Army field manuals, maps and texts on U.S. military procedures. In the last five years, the teams have organized 450 exchanges, including combat training, and have played host to special operations units that have come to teach Lithuanians long-range reconnaissance and hiding techniques.
Last month, Lithuanian planners asked Marine Lt. Col. James A. Day, the deputy JCTP team chief, to provide the square footage and design of a standard Marine barracks as a model for Lithuania's overhaul of its dilapidated military living quarters. Kurselis, the academy director, went one step further. "I need a Marine," he said, to work full-time at the academy.
"Initially we didn't know how Western armies were built, structured and worked. We started to go deeper into philosophy," said Kurselis, a graduate of the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. "We are learning the way of living, the way of thinking, the way free societies live."
By reinforcing the position of national militaries as the dominant institutions in many countries, some critics said, the United States may actually be retarding the emergence of strong democratic institutions.
"It's a diversion from the important goal of stabilizing societies and economies in the region. And it really provides an unnoticed and massive extended mandate for American security commitments," said Daniel T. Plesch, director of the British American Security Information Council, an independent research and advocacy organization. "These countries may not be in NATO but, all the way out to Kazakhstan, they see themselves related to the U.S. military."
Throughout the region people such as Pavol Slajdlenik, a 35-year-old Slovak construction worker, worry about the expense of trying to adopt NATO's military standards. "Right now we have no enemy," he said. "We need a military, but not a big one and I don't know how much it will cost to get into NATO. I don't know exactly if it's good or bad, but we should join the European Union first because the former communists are leaving and we should be a part of something that is European."
A source of concern among Czechs who have been reluctant to support the country's entry into NATO is whether the United States is fueling a regional arms race. Since President Clinton gradually removed Cold War prohibitions against U.S. weapons deals, the region has become the largest recipient of U.S.-funded military equipment transfers after the Mideast, according to State Department records. Washington gave $120 million in military equipment to nations in the region this year, compared with $15 million for military equipment to all of Africa and none to Asia.
The impact of such aid has been particularly dramatic in smaller countries. U.S. assistance to Estonia in training, excess defense items, new equipment and a plethora of small-scale exchanges last year equaled about one-third of the $60 million Estonia spends on defense annually, according to the U.S. Joint Staff.
U.S. and Eastern European officials acknowledge that Eastern Europe is an important emerging market for competing arms makers. But they add that the United States has dissuaded some countries from major defense purchases.
Responding to concern that growing U.S. military influence in countries along Russia's borders -- Kazakhstan, Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus -- will antagonize Russia, defense officials said they include Russia in partnership activities and keep Moscow apprised of U.S. contacts in the region.
"Russia must change the definition of what it needs for its own security," said Clark, commander of NATO and the U.S. European Command. "Russia will have to change or accept a certain degree of isolation from the international community that's emerging."
Clark and senior Eastern European officials say it may require the emergence of a new generation of Eastern European military leaders before the results of the U.S. investment become clear.
This seems the case in Slovakia, which gained independence five years ago with the split of Czechoslovakia but remains wary of outsiders. When Air Force Col. Michael M. Wyka became the Slovak team leader last summer, he arrived with a list of "Dos and Don'ts" supplied by the U.S. European Command.
"Don't assume that everyone you will meet or see wants you to be in Slovakia," the list said. "Remember that until quite recently, elements of the former Soviet Union's Red Army were based on Slovak soil as `protectors': An American military presence can easily be misconstrued as yet another foreign power trying to dominate the Slovak people."
Until this fall, the apolitical military in Slovakia had been pulled into politics by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who was unseated in recent elections. Meciar had installed a puppet chief of the general staff and politicized promotions, said U.S. and Slovak defense officials. Even reform-minded Slovak officers were cautious about breaking ranks in the intimidating atmosphere.
Maj. Gen. Milan Cerovsky, one of a handful of Slovak officers trying to introduce American ways to colleagues, said it is hard to communicate with officers who have had limited exposure to the West.
"Those generals and officers who passed the courses in the United States, these people understand clearly what is happening in your country, your structure, your military system," he said. "The most important changes happened in our minds."
Cerovsky recently visited Washington to research civilian-military relations. He was surprised to discover that Congress approves promotions of high-ranking officers. He has written and circulated a report on the issue, and expects the subject to be taken up soon by senior officers.
"We have trouble explaining your system to our high decision-making bodies," Cerovsky said. "Change is not easy. . . . Those people who haven't attended those courses, it's very difficult to explain."
In the meantime, pro-Western Slovak military leaders are trying to persuade the U.S. Air Force to use the country's large Malackey training range. "The presence of U.S. Air Force on Slovakian territory might have a positive role in reshaping the feeling . . . of the government," said one high-ranking defense official.
Col. Jan Prochyra, deputy director of the general staff's foreign relations department, is more blunt about the U.S. presence. The United States paid for 90 percent of the program, he said. Now he wants to know how long the support will last.
"It takes more than five years to create a new type of army, to create doctrine, something different than taking orders," he said. "Without such assistance the transformation process will be much longer and, in some countries, the question is, will there be any?"
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
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