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Will Georgia's Afghan 'Surge' Pay Off?

  • Brian Whitmore

Georgian soldiers carry their gears upon their arrival from Iraq at Tbilisi airport in August 2008.

Georgian soldiers carry their gears upon their arrival from Iraq at Tbilisi airport in August 2008.

For the past year, Georgia has been desperately trying to attract the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama's White House. It may finally have succeeded.

Georgian officials announced last week that they will contribute two light companies and a heavy battalion -- nearly 1,000 troops -- to the NATO mission in Afghanistan next spring. Those troops will join 170 Georgian soldiers already on the ground, making the tiny South Caucasus nation the Afghan mission's largest per capita contributor.

The deployments are part of a surge expected to bring foreign troop levels in Afghanistan to 140,000-150,000. Obama announced last week that the United States was sending an additional 30,000 troops, and turned to NATO allies in search of another 7,000. Georgia, whose own NATO ambitions have been repeatedly frustrated, stepped forward nonetheless.

"Our main message is that Georgia, which is a country under threat, is not just a consumer of security but a frequent contributor as well. I believe our partners understand this," Eka Tkeshelashvili, who heads Georgia's National Security Council, tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"The contingent we're sending to Afghanistan might shame Western European countries in its size and content. But we're not doing this to shame others, only to demonstrate that we're ready to stand with our partners."

Georgia announced its troop commitments in Brussels during a NATO meeting in which the alliance once again declined to offer Tbilisi a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step toward NATO membership.

Mikheil Saakashvili has made his country's Western integration a cornerstone of his presidency since coming to office in 2004, and received strong support from the previous U.S. administration of George W. Bush.

But the Obama administration, distracted by priorities elsewhere and wary of antagonizing Russia, has not given Saakashvili the level of attention he enjoyed from the Bush White House. Georgia has also seen its prospects dwindle under mounting critique of its democratic record and the country's disastrous war with Moscow in August 2008.

So now, Tbilisi's dramatic gesture of support for the Obama administration's goals raises a natural question: What, if anything, are they getting in return? Not much, analysts say, other than goodwill from Washington.

"The Georgians know they are in a difficult neighborhood and that American interest creates a kind of tacit security guarantee against further Russian aggression," says Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War."

"And anything that keeps America feeling engaged and grateful is good."

'Punching Above Your Weight'

U.S. officials were quick to express gratitude for Georgia's troop commitment.

During a visit to Tbilisi on December 7, General Roger Brady, the U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, called Tbilisi's decision "an example to others" and praised Georgia as "a nation that clearly is punching well above your weight."

Likewise, speaking at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington was "very grateful for Georgia's contributions to this important mission."

Kabul-bound? Georgian soldiers in joint U.S.-Georgian training in October.
Georgia also was a major contributor to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq, with a peak of 2,000 forces serving in that conflict. Georgian troops there were withdrawn and brought to the home front during the August 2008 war with Russia.

But experts say the Obama administration, while acknowledging Georgia's right someday to join NATO, is unlikely to take their support further.

Analysts say that even if Obama wanted to spend political capital on pushing Saakashvili's NATO bid, he would likely be thwarted by strong opposition from the European allies like Germany and France.

"He's not getting NATO and Obama can't give it to him. He can't deliver. I think it is important for the U.S. administration to recognize that, and I think they have recognized that, which is good," says Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at Columbia University and author of the book "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution."

"To fight a losing fight early in an administration is never something you want to do. And I suspect that on some level, Saakashvili recognizes that."

Nevertheless, Mitchell calls Georgia's troop gambit a savvy move. "In any negotiating or bargaining situation, you often try to create an environment where you are vaguely owed something. And I think Saakashvili always wants to have that environment going," he says.

On The Pentagon's Radar

Addressing soldiers at a new military base outside Tbilisi last week, Saakashvili directly linked Georgia's participation in the Afghan mission to the country's security at home.

While the United States and NATO are preoccupied with the Afghan conflict, he said, Russia is getting stronger and more assertive in the South Caucasus. "The sooner the Afghan situation is resolved," he added, the sooner "Georgia will be more protected."

Saakashvili added that tough tours of duty in Afghanistan will give Georgian troops "a real combat baptism" that would come in handy in potential future conflicts.

Experts say combat duty in mountainous Afghanistan would indeed provide valuable experience for Georgian troops that could prove useful in the event of another war with Russia.

"It's good for Georgia getting its troops working alongside the Americans and getting trained and equipped. There is a definite plus for Georgia in this," Lucas says.

"It keeps them on the Pentagon radar, and battle-hardened troops from Afghanistan can be useful if you find yourself fighting in the Caucasus. So there's a plus from that point of view as well."

Muted Opposition

A recent public-opinion poll conducted in Tbilisi showed a slight plurality favoring the deployment. According to the poll, 44.9 percent supported sending the troops, 43.4 percent opposed, and 11.7 percent were undecided.

Nugzar Rekhviashvili, a 73-year-old retired designer, says that despite the risk the troops will face in Afghanistan, the deployment gives Georgia a chance to show NATO that it is ready to contribute to the alliance in a serious way.

"Since Georgia has the possibility to join NATO, we have the duty to go. To do otherwise would be unthinkable. NATO is a collective security organization, and if you want to be part of it you need to show that you can fulfill the requirements of the alliance," Rekhviashvili says.

Georgian soldiers who were killed in the South Ossetian conflict zone in August 2008 are buried near Tbilisi.
"Our troops will get very important experience from serving there. NATO is also helping the Georgian army develop by sending instructors and trainers. So I think this is very positive."

But with Russian troops just 30 kilometers from Tbilisi, 33-year-old Tamar Shugliashvili questions the wisdom of sending so many Georgian forces abroad. "I am very upset that our guys are going to serve on foreign soil, especially when our own country is so unprotected," she says.

Analysts say that despite the poll numbers, opposition to the deployment is fairly passive and muted.

Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute for Strategic and International Studies, says the fact that the Afghan mission is a NATO-led operation -- and that an overwhelming majority of Georgians have a favorable view of the alliance -- has stifled any serious and vocal opposition to the move.

"Since everybody understands that the Afghanistan campaign is something very decisive for NATO itself and for NATO's future, Georgia sending troops there is seen as a positive decision," Gegeshidze says.

And is there a risk of a backlash against the United States and NATO if, after strong contributions to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Georgia continues to be denied membership in the alliance?

"Regarding a backlash, it is possible but not likely, because Georgia's NATO aspirations are driven by a fear of Russia," says Gegeshidze

"Russia is still there as a source of threat to Georgia's national security. And since there is no other alternative to NATO to deter possible Russian aggression in the future, then NATO integration will remain a priority. Even if it does not happen soon, I do not think that Georgian public opinion will make a U-turn and choose other priorities."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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