By Gevorg Stamboltsian
A top general from the U.S. troops in Europe ended Wednesday a two-day visit to Armenia during which he discussed growing U.S.-Armenian military cooperation and Yerevan’s plans to send non-combat military personnel to Iraq.
“The United States is proud to have Armenia as a friend in the war on terrorism and, in the future, in the recovery and reconstruction of Iraq” Major-General Jeffery Kohler, director of plans and policy at the U.S. European Command, said after talks with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the chief of the Armenian army staff, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian.
“Currently Armenia has offered to provide a truck company and medical personnel [to Iraq]. Details of that deployment are being worked out right now,” Kohler told reporters before leaving the Armenian capital.
But he gave no possible dates for the dispatch of the small Armenian contingent promised by the Armenian government last summer. The two sides have since been discussing practical modalities of the deployment which will be largely financed by the U.S. government. The Armenian Defense Ministry posted late last year a liaison officer to the U.S. military’s Central Command in Florida as part of those plans.
The issue appears to have also been discussed during U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s brief visit to Yerevan last week. “I think that speaks very well of the nation,” Armitage said of the planned Armenian deployment.
It was initially announced that Yerevan is ready to commit a team of medical doctors and a platoon of demining experts for the for the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq. Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian said last month that Armenian military drivers are also trained to participate in the operation.
Armenia, which did not endorse the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq last year, hopes that its military involvement now will make Armenian companies eligible for U.S.-funded reconstruction contracts in the war-ravaged nation. Asked to comment on this, Kohler said: “I know that the U.S. government has offered any nation that is supporting the effort in Iraq ability to come in and assist in the reconstruction.”
Kohler said another purpose of his trip was to discuss further U.S. assistance to a special peace-keeping battalion of the Armenian armed force. “The United States has already provided some equipment and training to the battalion and we are looking at ways to advance that and enable that to grow in the future,” he said.
The U.S. general, who is based in the German city of Stuttgart, heaped praise in this regard on a platoon of that battalion that joined the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo last month on Armenia’s first-ever military mission abroad. “The Armenian people should be very proud of how they perform,” he said.
The U.S. military assistance to Armenia was made possible by the suspension of the decade-long restrictions on U.S. government aid to its arch-foe Azerbaijan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The U.S. Congress has allocated about $8 million in military funding to Armenia. Most of the money will be used for upgrading communication facilities of the Armenian Armed Forces.
A similar sum has also been budgeted for Azerbaijan. The administration of President George W. Bush would break that parity in its draft budget for the fiscal year 2005 which calls for over $8 million in military aid to Azerbaijan and only $2.3 million to Armenia. Armitage argued in Yerevan that Baku is entitled to a bigger share of the pie because it is already involved in the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Responding to Armenian protests against the aid disparity, Washington has assured that it will not change the shaky balance of forces in the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Kohler likewise stressed that the U.S. will almost certainly freeze its military cooperation with both nations should the Karabakh war resume. “Although it is not up to the U.S. European Command, I can almost guarantee that if there is conflict from either side our Congress will impose those sanctions again,” he said.
Kohler added that he will soon pay another visit to Armenian at the request of Sarkisian. “The minister of defense has ordered me in many ways to come back and visit very soon,” he said without elaborating.
(Photolur photo: Kohler showing off his lapel pin with U.S. and Armenian flags.)