Georgia’s newly elected government has pledged to continue its long-term military contribution to the international security efforts in Afghanistan after most foreign troops pull out in 2014.
Georgian forces have been key players in NATO efforts in Afghanistan, and Georgia has lost more soldiers in the mission relative to the size of its population than any other participating nation. Since Georgia joined the operation in 2009, 18 Georgian troops have been killed -- seven of them this year.
Georgia now has some 1,570 troops serving in Afghanistan, making the small South Caucasian country of more than 4.5 million people the largest non-NATO contributor to the Afghan mission. Most of the troops are serving in the Afghan province of Helmand with a few dozen deployed to Kabul.
Georgia’s new defense minister, Irakli Alasania, recently visited the Georgian troops in Afghanistan and met with top NATO and Afghan officials. Alasania said Georgia is willing to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai in helping to train Afghan security forces after most international forces leave in 2014.
“Visiting our hero soldiers in Afghanistan is endorsement of their endeavor in ensuring Georgia’s security on one hand, and the global security, on the other,” he told VOA's Georgian Service. “Each of these operations, and our compatibility with NATO partners has a special significance.”
During his October visit to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, NATO’s representative for the Caucasus region, James Appathurai, said Georgian troops will be crucial to NATO’s long-term focus on training Afghan forces.
“We do not want to plan anything without Georgia’s involvement,” he said. “Georgia might be willing to make its contribution to the Afghanistan mission after 2014, and this contribution will be very important.”
Georgia’s interests are both pragmatic and historical.
Despite Russian objections, Georgia has ambitions to become part of the NATO alliance. And Alasania said Georgians, like Afghans, have in the past fought off dominance by the former Soviet Union.
“We also know how difficult it is to be under the Soviet occupation -- Georgians have passed through this as well -- and it all builds up closer ties and makes us sympathetic to Afghan people,” Alasania said.
Still, Georgian officials concede that the Afghan mission does not guarantee admission to NATO.
“Nobody will give us a ticket to enroll NATO,” said Irakli Sesiashvili, who heads Georgia’s defense and security committee in parliament. “We have to get used to this as long as it needs a political decision of 28 countries.”
But Georgia analyst Jon Chicky at the National Defense University in Washington says Georgia can reap benefits in the long run.
“By deploying its troops to Afghanistan, Georgia demonstrates that it is a security provider to [the] NATO alliance, willing and able to send its troops into harm's way without the caveats that some of the existing NATO members have, even though their militaries are far more capable than Georgia's,” he said.
Chicky said Georgia’s involvement in Afghanistan will lead to better diplomatic relations with Washington as Georgian troops will help fill a void when U.S. soldiers leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Georgian armed forces will also gain international training on counter-insurgency while learning how to be part of a multinational coalition, Chicky said.
But some Georgian politicians say too much manpower is going to international deployment.
“If the very same political objective of a political elite can be achieved by two soldiers, then the third soldier is excessive,” said former Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze.
Georgian officials say the recent death of a 23-year-old corporal in Afghanistan is a grim reminder of the nation’s sacrifice.
“It is very difficult to talk about continuation of the mission and continuation of the policy when we lost another brave soldier a few days ago,” Alasania said recently. “It is a burden and obligation which Georgia has undertaken for ensuring international security.”