TBILISI, Georgia — When a truck bomb in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province killed seven soldiers serving with the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, last week, it was the deadliest attack on coalition troops in almost a year.
It stood out for another reason: the troops were Georgian.
Their small South Caucasus Mountains country of 4.5 million people is currently the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF, and comes in sixth overall, with more than 1,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.
Those numbers reflect just how keenly this former Soviet republic has wanted to join the military alliance.
But the recent attack, which injured six other soldiers, has unnerved many in the staunch U.S. ally who believe NATO isn’t doing enough to reciprocate — and it’s prompting debate about the country’s priorities.
Georgia has previously been among the quickest to aid NATO’s overseas missions. It deployed 2,000 soldiers to Iraq and offered forces for a Mali deployment earlier this year.
According to a March poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), 73 percent of Georgians approved of the government’s goal of joining NATO — for which the Afghanistan deployment is seen as a means to an end.
But enthusiasm for the mission is beginning to crack. Ten Georgian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the last month. Thousands attended the group funeral for the seven most recent casualties, and a Facebook event for a protest called “Return Georgian Troops to Georgia” received more than 9,000 RSVPs before it was deleted after the rally.
TV talk shows have been awash with complaints that Georgia is giving too much and receiving too little from an alliance that has yet to give it a clear path to membership.
“Fifteen hundred people in Afghanistan, that’s not a small thing for a small country like Georgia,” CRRC Georgia Director Koba Turmanidze said. “Every family knows someone who is there, and if [the casualties] continue with this frequency, people will start protesting.”
Public questioning of the country’s Euro-Atlantic course would have been “impossible” recently, he added.
Every Georgian government since independence in 1991 has enshrined NATO membership as a major foreign policy goal.
Four years ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili pointedly pledged the large contingent of troops to the ISAF mission “without caveats” that would restrict them from deployment to dangerous provinces and combat missions.
Georgian troops have consequently borne heavy losses since arriving in Afghanistan in 2010. They had the highest casualty rate among non-NATO contributors the following year with 5.2 percent of deployed servicemen killed or injured that year, close to the U.S. casualty rate of around 5.7 percent.
The new government headed by billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition won parliamentary elections in October, has doubled down on Saakshvili’s NATO aspirations, enacting an overhaul of the country’s military aimed at reducing its reliance on conscripts and heavy armored units that were the staple of Soviet-era forces.
The new army will depend on professional soldiers and special forces units trained to seamlessly operate with NATO troops in foreign operations.
Michael Cecire of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says the willingness to contribute to NATO missions together with Georgia’s improved democratic credentials makes Georgia “arguably on par or better” than countries already granted a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step in the ascension process.
That may not matter, says Stephen Blank, a professor at the United States Army War College. “I don’t see anyone in NATO wanting to bring Georgia in and I don’t see even the United States ready to do it,” he said.
That’s because the alliance is “not prepared” to challenge Russia, which opposes Georgia’s membership — one of the reasons many believe the two countries fought a brief war in 2008.
Even if unspoken, the policy represents a marked change from five years ago, when then-President George W. Bush publicly championed putting Georgia on a path to membership during a NATO summit in Bucharest. The alliance was divided on the issue, however, with newer Eastern European members pushing for Georgia’s inclusion and more cautious Western European states refusing.
In the end, NATO members denied MAP status for Georgia and Ukraine, whose controversial bid was also debated, but solemnly promised in the summit’s official declaration that the two countries eventually “will become members of NATO.”
Ronald Asmus, whose book “The Little War that Shook the World” chronicles Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, said the half measure “did not reassure the Georgians nor did it avoid provoking the Russians,” and “might have emboldened” them.
Within weeks, shootouts between the Georgian army and separatist forces in Georgia’s Russian-supported breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke out.
As tensions reached a fever pitch in August, Georgia launched an offensive to retake South Ossetia that was crushed by an overwhelming Russian counterattack. It killed hundreds and caused billions of dollars in damage. After temporarily occupying various other parts of Georgia, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries soon after.
Georgia’s NATO hopes have since been dead in the water, Blank says. Fear of provoking Russia’s ire has even frozen sales of Western arms to Tbilisi. Only equipment and munitions required for its ISAF forces to be interoperable with NATO are currently transferred to the country.
Despite the long odds, Georgia’s leaders still see NATO membership as the “only option” to counter Russian influence and regain its lost territories, Turmanidze says.
Last month, Ivanishvili declared that Georgia will obtain “at least MAP” status next year, although polls show Georgians are skeptical, having heard similar promises before.
As public support for the ISAF deployment begins to erode, that mission is about to get deadlier. Over the next year and a half, Georgian soldiers will continue to hold down Afghanistan’s most dangerous province — where almost twice as many coalition soldiers die than in any other Afghan region — as ISAF forces draw down in preparation to leave by 2014.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania announced Georgian troops would abandon the base where the attack took place as well as another Helmand outpost where they may be even more vulnerable — although he said Tbilisi will not reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan.
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The death toll has led some local media to draw historical links to the rule of 18th-century Georgian King Giorgi XI.
Under the patronage of Persia at the time, Giorgi was sent to Afghanistan to quell an uprising there and eventually earned the title viceroy of Kandahar.
After losing both Georgian and Persian support, however, Giorgi and his army were destroyed by Afghan warlords in 1709, leading to decades of uncertainty and chaos that ended in Georgia’s annexation by Russia, which would rule it almost without interruption until the communist collapse in 1991.