The case of Georgia’s military involvement in Afghanistan is a curious one. Around 1600 Georgian troops are stationed in Helmand province in the framework of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This makes Georgia the largest contributor of military troops, as well as largest per-capita, to the ISAF mission from a non-NATO nation. In comparison, Armenia and Sweden have 126 and 570 troops, respectively, whilst the combined number of troops from NATO-members Netherlands, France and Hungary amount to some 1500 troops.
In total, around 100,000 U.S.-led NATO troops are fighting a Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. As of June there have been some 3231 coalition-wide casualties, with 22 Georgian military losses. Earlier this month the latter rose to 29, when a Taliban insurgent laid siege to a Georgian base in Afghanistan, fatally wounding seven soldiers and maiming dozens in a huge suicide blast. The deadliest single attack on NATO troops in 2013, the assault was the latest in a series of insurgent attempts to wreck havoc and demoralize NATO and Afghan forces in the wake of the ISAF campaign’s end next year.
The repercussions of this attack may however be far more than mere troop casualties, as intense public pressure has pushed Georgian leadership into reconsidering its commitments to the ISAF.
The question of sending national troops to Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO has been a hotbed for discussions within the military bloc since the mission’s launch in late 2001. The largest source of friction – largely fueled by domestic public concerns – has revolved around the amount of troops, as well as the role, that national troops would play in the NATO-led military operation. On contrary to many NATO-members that have been actively sought to pull out in recent years, Georgia has been further plunging its troop commitments. In fact, Georgian troops are stationed in Afghanistan’s volatile southernwestern province of Helmand where fatalities top the charts.
Nevertheless, the deployment and involvement of Georgian troops in high-risk combat scenarios has never been a matter of discussion on the domestic level. This is reflected in Georgia’s national political culture where the government shuns giving reasoning behind policy actions, instead fostering a clear divide between the public and private realm.
The government’s decision to uptake commitments in the ISAF have been no different.
Throughout the years President Saakashvili has been authorizing the deployment of additional Georgian troops in Afghanistan. Moreover, his political team has insisted that Georgian troops should stay part of ISAF till its end in 2014. This unequivocal support can be clearly identified as Saakashvili’s determination to use this military support as a stepstone to eventual accession into the military bloc. And while Georgian commitments have been expressly advocated abroad, little discourse has taken place within the country itself.
In other words, prior to June 2013, there has been very little focus on the Georgian mission in Afghanistan. The government has not communicated their policy goals, nor have the previous loss of 22 troops been extensively covered.
Such absence of public discourse throughout the years has had its consequences. Firstly, it brought about little awareness what value participation in ISAF brings to Georgia, other than bolstering prospects of accession into the military bloc. As eventual membership remains acknowledged but vague in terms of time, this policy justification has throughout the years lost its appeal.
Secondly, the neglection of public discourse on part of officials has left an impression on ordinary citizens that their opinion was in disregard. As such, the policy to engage in ISAF was seen as forged by an elite political circle, devoid of accountability to their electorate. The deaths of seven Georgian troops in a single attack earlier this month have, however, failed to skip the radars of the society. Public discourse boomed with regular citizens questioning whether their countrymen should be deployed abroad, in a war that is not of their own. NATO was itself picked at for muddling along to define a clear vision of Georgia’s path towards membership.
Societal concerns have risen to the point that some segments of the society have called for the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the ISAF. Several protests were held in the center of Tbilisi, with the demonstrators demanding a complete pull out of Georgian troops. Similar demonstrations were held in other cities, including Kutaisi and Batumi. And while there was low attendance, it still represented the first instance of protests against integration and participation with NATO.
To allay these concerns and soften the impact of the public narrative, the Georgian government has already taken several measures. Firstly, it has closed down two functioning bases in Helmand and redeployed its troops to a more secure location. Secondly, the Minister of Defence has authorized the increase of the one-time compensation for the families of soldiers killed in combat from 15,000 GEL (7500 euros) to 100,000 GEL (50,000 euros), as well as a monthly pension of 1000 GEL (500 euros). Thirdly, the Georgian leadership has committed to more rigidly pursue a clearer timetable of accession into the military bloc.
And while the new Georgian leadership seeks to engage in public discussions, one begs the question whether proper public discourse could have avoided the public uproar in the first place.