In late May, yet another car bomb exploded at an isolated base in Afghanistan’s famously restive Helmand province, killing seven coalition soldiers and wounding another nine. But these were not typical coalition troops — they weren’t even from a NATO member state. They were Georgians, whose contingent is the sixth largest in Afghanistan, making the small country of 4.5 million the highest per capita contributor to the NATO war effort (PDF). The Helmand bombing took Georgia’s death toll up to 30.
For most of the West, the bombing was but another tock in the seemingly metronomic output of bad news coming out of Afghanistan. Though the incident was the largest loss of life for the coalition since August, it was not an unexpected development at the height of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan’s arguably most infamous region. The New York Times, in a startling act of insensitivity and questionable editorial decision-making, opted to include unflattering — and largely unsubstantiated — allegations of Georgian forces’ rough treatment of locals. “According to some local Afghan elders, the Georgian troops are not particularly well liked in the area,” reported the Times.
The piece went on to ponder whether the Georgian language’s “Russian-sounding” timbre (though Georgian is completely unrelated to Russian, or any other non-Kartvelian language) or one elder’s claims of petty thieving were the source of locals’ supposed discontent before qualifying that such complaints were over a year old. Even if the allegations are true, it remains a mystery as to how these issues found themselves in an article reporting on Georgia’s largest single loss of life while participating in ISAF.
The decided flippancy telegraphed by the Times article, and the general yawn that accompanies most casualty news from Afghanistan these days, sharply contrasted to the reaction in Georgia, where the country remains in shock and mourning. However, the real issue isn’t that Western audiences have become desensitized to violence — it can only be expected, particularly in the U.S., where losses in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to edge into the news ticker as regularly as box scores. Instead, Georgia’s losses signify something else entirely because Tbilisi’s participation in Afghanistan is so unusual.
Georgia’s outsized deployment of 1,561 troops to Afghanistan is nothing less than extraordinary for several reasons. Besides being the largest per capita contributor, the Georgian active military totals only some 37,000 in total, making its ratio of deployed to total forces a staggering 1:23. Among the top five ISAF contributors, the ratio climbs after the U.S., the UK, and Georgia. For the U.S., this ratio is 1:21. The UK, 1:25. Germany is 1:42 and Poland is 1:68. Italy is 1:134. And even this obscures the extent of the Georgian commitment. Unlike most coalition members, Georgia is one of the few to deploy such a large force without the inhibiting national caveats that keep many contingents away from the more dangerous regions and missions. But perhaps more importantly, unlike its fellow top-tier contributors, Georgia is a country facing very real security risks at home. In Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian legal territory is technically under occupation from Russian forces in support of de facto ethno-separatist authorities.
More to the point, Georgia’s impressive (the Times’ isolated allegations aside, U.S. troops highly rate the ability and professionalism of Georgian troops) — and decidedly non-token — contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan aren’t part of any obligations to NATO. Georgian troops have marched off to war in a distant land with which it has no direct national interests. And it has done so without the benefit of a Western or NATO security umbrella. Rather, Tbilisi hopes that its participation in such missions will sell the West on its longstanding desire to join the Atlantic Alliance. Few in the West appear to grasp the significance of Georgia’s deployment and the toll it is exacting all in the hope of eventually being offered a genuine pathway into the Euro-Atlantic security club.
Between its outstanding role in Afghanistan and significant signs of progress in its own neighborhood, Georgia’s increasingly productive role in Euro-Atlantic security ought to be acknowledged with a Membership Action Plan (MAP). While a MAP doesn’t commit NATO to Tbilisi’s inclusion any more than the Alliance has already publicly announced, it would be a major symbolic boost to Tbilisi and would lay down concrete benchmarks in democracy development and security reform. Alliance members wary of Russian opposition should be encouraged by Georgia’s more conciliatory, though unbowed, tone towards Russia. Tbilisi would likely also be willing to entertain NATO membership for those regions of Georgia under Tbilisi’s control as an interim solution, at least temporarily bypassing the sticky issue of the separatist territories.
Delivering a MAP to Georgia would not only be a nod to Georgia’s efforts to be a friend and partner of the West, but would also help reinforce the country’s political development. Although already rated equal to or better than current NATO members like Albania and Turkey or MAP holders Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by democracy watchdog Freedom House, Georgian democracy is still a work-in-progress. A MAP would help facilitate this process.
There are legitimate concerns over the how best to structure and manage Georgia’s integration with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures. However, these are issues that would be best considered and resolved within the MAP process. As for Russia, which vehemently opposes Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, there are small but interesting signs that Moscow is conceding to the eventuality (Ru) of Georgian membership. But more practically, in a post-Reset world, Washington and European capitals have become increasingly aware that there are some issues with Moscow cannot be ironed out through dialogue.