Georgia Sends Combat Troops to Afghanistan: Rationale behind Tbilisi’s Move

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

On November 17 Georgia sent 170 servicemen to Afghanistan to participate in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation. The combat troops will serve under French command near the Afghan capital Kabul. According to Georgian media, Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-Western government plans to dispatch an additional 700 troops by February 2010 to strengthen the American units in various parts of the war-torn country.

A day earlier, during the official ceremony at the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, Georgia’s Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia highly praised the preparedness and morale of the Georgian military who had been trained by American instructors for months. “We fully realize that ISAF is NATO’s top priority…Peace and stability in Afghanistan is our common objective,” Akhalaia said.

In September, Georgian media reported that 40 instructors from the U.S. Marine Corps were engaged in the training of Georgian troops for the Afghan campaign and “the two-year training program was designed to prepare four Georgian battalions in total.” Needless to say, Russia views any American involvement in training Georgian troops with utmost suspicion and even the very presence of the American military instructors on Georgian soil is an irritant to the Kremlin.

As the Obama Administration is in the process of developing a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and a decision on the number of troops required for winning battles as well as the hearts and minds of the Afghan people is still under deliberation, Georgia’s contribution to the West’s cause cannot be undervalued.

Meanwhile, not all Georgians agree that sending troops to a remote country is the right – and timely – decision for a nation whose very survival is under a big question mark. Overwhelmed in the battlefield in August 2008 by Russia’s tens of thousands of troops, countless tanks and airplanes as well as warships on the Black Sea, Georgia, a good number of Georgians allege, does not have the luxury to sacrifice itself to others’ cause.

President Saakashvili has a hard time explaining to his fellow citizens that for Georgia, with 20 percent of territory under Russian occupation and Russian troops stationed as near as a few dozen miles from Tbilisi, helping the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan is an absolutely necessary step.

Before the Russian military aggression Georgia had as many as 2,000 troops in America’s other battlefield, Iraq – the third largest contingent after the U.S. and U.K. – and boasted that it was not a mere consumer but a sizable provider of security in today’s troubled international system.

The Georgians were shocked when they learned that Germany’s and France’s decisive ‘no’ at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008 denied their country a much needed Membership Action Plan (MAP) that could pave the way to coveted membership in the Western alliance. Emboldened, Moscow did not wait long before attacking Georgia a few months later, in August 2008.

Yet again, President Saakashvili’s government is trying to rationalize its decision to help the United States and the West by explaining to its people that participation in NATO’s operation in Afghanistan as in the past about Georgia being a responsible international player, a de facto NATO ally and a nation that does not simply request security from the West but is capable of providing one.

Meanwhile, as long as Georgia remains split into three parts and is excluded from the Western collective security architecture, many Georgians fear, that their country’s sustainability as a stable, democratic and free nation is an objective, not an accomplished fact.