By Molly Corso
While some NATO members may be skittish about the alliance’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan, Georgia remains firmly committed, and will soon rank as the mission’s largest non-NATO supplier of troops.
The deployment may have the unswerving support of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, but officials in Tbilisi do not seem eager to engage in public discussion at home about the presence of Georgian troops in Afghanistan. Some experts believe the government’s reticence could end up hampering its efforts to join NATO.
President Saakashvili has regularly authorized increases in the number of Georgian soldiers operating in Afghanistan under the auspices of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In addition, Saakashvili has pledged repeatedly to stay with the NATO mission until the end. The deployment is largely seen as a reflection of Tbilisi’s fierce determination to gain full membership in the Atlantic alliance.
By 2013, Georgia is expected to have 1,685 troops in Afghanistan; a number that has gotten the attention of top brass both in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Tbilisi currently has a reported 940 soldiers clearing mines, guarding roads and fighting insurgents in southern Helmand province. Reinforcements are preparing for deployment later in March.
Georgia’s willingness to participate “without caveats” — meaning Georgian soldiers can go wherever necessary — “is not the case even with most of our allies,” commented William Lahue, the NATO liaison officer in the South Caucasus. The contribution has made the country an “extremely valued” partner for the United States and the alliance, he added.
The US military attaché in Tbilisi, Col. Jeff Hartman, agreed, saying that “it advertises what I think is a key NATO need, which is the ability to generate combat power, the ability to generate infantry battalions for expeditionary warfare, warfare beyond your borders.”
While appreciated by NATO commanders, Georgia’s participation in the Afghan campaign is something that flies under the radar of most Georgians at home. Debate about Georgia’s role in the war is largely non-existent, noted military affairs journalist Giorgi Tskvitava. Information about those killed and wounded in action is rarely publicized. Little is known, for example, about the 15 soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan since Georgia joined the ISAF mission in 2004.
“These guys, these soldiers, greatly contributed to the security of our country. … No one says a word. I think this policy is not correct because they need to explain to people why we are in Afghanistan,” said Tskvitava. In its 2011 global survey on media freedom, the Washington, DC,-based watchdog group Freedom House ranked Georgia as “partly free.”
Popular opposition to Georgia’s NATO membership is negligible; just 4 percent of 2,089 respondents in a 2010 Caucasus Research Resources Center poll, for example, were critical of the deployment. The high level of public backing for the mission prompts Tskvitava to wonder “[w]hy does the government not provide, to the public, to its citizens, information?”
Over the course of a month, the Defense Ministry failed to respond to EurasiaNet.org interview requests about Georgia’s ISAF mission.
NATO’s special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, made the cover of the pro-government news weekly Tabula this week, but the Q&A did not delve too deeply into the Afghan mission. “It is very important for the country to show that it is not just a problem, but that it also can solve a problem, and in this mission Georgia is doing exactly that,” Appathurai said.
The lack of debate about Georgia’s Afghanistan engagement draws attention to the obstacles facing Tbilisi’s NATO membership application, commented Lincoln Mitchell, an associate adjunct professor international and public affairs and an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. “Ironically, a vibrant debate about whether or not Georgia should get into NATO, and whether or not Georgia should support troops in Afghanistan, … would help Georgia get into NATO more than this kind of media repression and sending troops,” Mitchell said.
Two opposition figures — Kakha Kukava, leader of the tiny Free Georgia party, and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili — want to launch a campaign against both Georgia’s NATO goals and its Afghanistan presence, but their intentions for now register mostly as a blip on the local media scene.
It appears that Saakashvili tends to see those who question Georgia’s role in the ISAF mission as unpatriotic. “Those who say that we should not be part of this operation are footmen of [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and of Russia, no matter if they state that they support NATO and the EU,” he said during a February 26 speech.
“If we want to have a state, we should have an army. And if we want to have an army, we should be in . . . international combat missions no matter how painful it might be,” Saakashvili added.
NATO’s Lahue indicated that he is working with the Georgian Defense Ministry’s Public Affairs Department on opening up about the Afghan mission, but he did not provide details. “It is hard to do everything at one time, and the lack of transparency is a Soviet legacy,” he said.
Ultimately, neither the size of Georgia’s ISAF mission nor the government’s reluctance to talk about it is going to be a determining factor in Tbilisi’s NATO membership bid, noted Col. Jon E. Chicky, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, and a former director for Eurasian and Black Sea Policy in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense.
“It has more to do with NATO internal [issues] and finding the right time to convince all the heads of state,” Chicky said. “It has less to do with Georgia.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.