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Georgians Uneasy About Sending Troops Abroad

Online poll shows overwhelming majority against deploying forces in Afghanistan.
By Giorgi Tskhvitava
  • Military parade in Tbilisi. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
    Military parade in Tbilisi. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)

There is an increasing groundswell of opposition in Georgia to the country’s troop commitments in Afghanistan, where 16 of its soldiers have died since they were first deployed there in 2009.

By the end of this year, the Georgian contingent in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, ISAF, will increase by 750 to reach nearly 1,700. This makes Georgia the largest non-NATO contributor of forces to ISAF. They are currently deployed in the restive southern Helmand region and around the capital Kabul.

At the time of Georgia’s brief war with Russia in August 2008, it had some 2,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq. Defence experts argue that with relations with Moscow still tense, it is unwise to increase the number of troops serving abroad.

The government has not announced how long the deployment will last, but NATO plans to withdraw its forces by the end of 2014.

The absence of 1,700 members of a military numbering 37,000 might seem insignificant, but the forces in question are an American-trained elite. And in addition to those on active service in Afghanistan at any one time, another 1,700 are undergoing training ahead of their rotational deployment, and the same number are resting up after returning home.

Speaking in 2010, five months after the first Georgian troops went to Afghanistan. President Mikhael Saakashvili noted that his country was the biggest per capita contributor of troops.

Officials dismiss suggestions that gaving a contingent in Afghanistan leaves a gap in the military, insisting a deal is in place whereby the troops will be sent back home swiftly the moment they are needed.

That is not enough to placate critics like Irakli Aladashvili, editor-in-chief of the defence magazine Arsenal.

“In the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, the 2,000 Georgian servicemen serving as part of the international force in Iraq were only sent back on the third day,” he said. “That’s the context in which almost a whole brigade is being deployed to the ISAF mission. Sending that number of servicemen could be a heavy burden for national security.”

Public opinion seems to be against the idea, especially as casualties have risen. The most recent death of a Georgian soldier was that of Valerian Khujadze, killed by a landmine in Helmand in late April.

In an recent online poll by the site, 95 per cent of nearly 2,000 respondents opposed the troop presence.

Giorgi Antadze of the Euro-Caucasian University in Tbilisi said the signs were clear – “the public cannot understand why the authorities are sending another battalion to one of the hottest of the world’s hot spots when there are already Georgian troops there”.

Georgian units have taken part in a number of other international missions since 1999, first in Kosovo, then for a 2004 Afghan election, and then in Iraq. Officials say it is important for Georgia to support peacekeeping efforts, and also to build stronger ties to partners like NATO and the United States.

Some experts argue that these relationships need more work than just offering military manpower.

“An increased military contribution in Afghanistan is just one of many necessary preconditions for joining NATO,” Tengo Pkhakadze, director of the International Centre for Strategic Studies in Tbilisi, said. “It’s by no means a guarantee [of membership] for Georgia. NATO’s requirements include attaining a high degree of democracy, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and fair elections.”

Giorgi Tskhvitava is head of the Association of Military Reporters in Georgia.

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