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Georgian Offer Of Afghan Transit Unlikely To Tempt NATO

Is Georgia looking for a back door into NATO?
Is Georgia looking for a back door into NATO?
BRUSSELS -- The United States generally welcomes all assistance in Afghanistan, where Washington is leading NATO efforts in a high-stakes struggle to stabilize the country.

Georgia, however, may prove the exception. It has twice offered its territory as a potential transit corridor for Western military shipments to Afghanistan -- first in February 2009, and again this week, when President Mikheil Saakashvili revived the proposal in an interview with the Associated Press.

Neither the Pentagon nor the White House has commented substantially on the proposal, which is likely to remain just that, with NATO officials suggesting privately the plan is unfeasible both politically and logistically.

Daniel Korski, a senior analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) in London, says that NATO does not appear to be convinced the Georgian route is either viable or cheaper than the alternatives.

Korski says the question is whether Georgia is "logistically prepared" and "the infrastructure is actually in place. And so far, despite this offer having been on the table for almost a year, NATO has clearly felt that the Pakistani route and also the more northerly route, the one that goes through Russia and some of the Central Asian states, is more viable."

Transit Options

The Georgian plan involves NATO ships crossing the Black Sea to its ports, where their cargo would be loaded onto trains, taken to Azerbaijan, ferried across the Caspian Sea, then driven across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in freight trucks. Tbilisi is also offering to refuel NATO cargo planes at its airports.

Saakashvili told the AP he believes the other countries involved would give their assent to the plan.

Pakistan remains NATO's primary transit route to Afghanistan. Although vulnerable to insurgent attacks, it's by far the most convenient overland transit corridor to Afghanistan's restless southern provinces, which form the focal point of the new U.S. military strategy.

The rail route via the Baltic states, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan is lengthy, but functional. Its main weakness is that it does not allow NATO allies to transit lethal military goods. Thus far, Germany is the only NATO member state to have been able to negotiate an exception.

The United States and Russia have also negotiated an agreement on the air transit of lethal military shipment. But the deal, which envisioned more than 4,000 overflights a year, has so far amounted to only a handful of flights, with sources on both sides suggesting discord remains over the terms.

NATO Back Door

Under such circumstances, Saakashvili might have reason to hope Washington would welcome a transit alternative. The Georgian leader, who is eager to bring his country closer to the NATO fold, is also contributing 900 troops to NATO-led troops in Afghanistan, as part of the envisioned U.S. "surge."

But NATO is wary of the Georgian proposal. An increased NATO presence on the Black Sea is certain to irritate Russia, which went to war with Georgia in August 2008. The United States and NATO are still gingerly trying to patch up valuable strategic ties with Moscow following that conflict.

Although Saakashvili in his interview denied any political motivation behind his offer, NATO capitals suspect Tbilisi is trying to find a back door into the alliance. Its membership bid was frozen in April 2008 -- largely on the account of resistance from Germany and France, which have close ties with Russia. Moscow fiercely opposes the NATO bid by both Georgia and fellow former Soviet republic Ukraine.

The current leadership of Ukraine, like Georgia, has attempted to keep itself close to the NATO fold. It this week became the first non-NATO member to contribute forces to the alliance's flagship NATO Response Force.

The ECFR's Korski doesn't think the attempts by Ukraine and Georgia to curry NATO's favor by offering it troops or transit will have any effect on the two countries' membership prospects.

"I think the truth is that it is immaterial at this stage," Korski says. "The question of NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia is not going to be decided on whether they support the [NATO] campaign or whether they allow transit across their countries."

However, Saakashvili's calculation may be even simpler. Any NATO or U.S. presence is reckoned across all of Eastern Europe to be better than none -- and security, however slender, against future Russian aggression.

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