The country of Georgia has been sending troops to Afghanistan to support the NATO-led mission since 2004. Over the past year, over 900 Georgian soldiers have been serving in Helmand province, deployed alongside American, British, and Danish troops in one of the most conflict-laden and contested areas of Afghanistan. At a time when many NATO countries, including the United States, are drawing down their forces, Georgia has just added another infantry battalion. This brings the total number of Georgians deployed to Afghanistan to nearly 1,700. Georgia has now surpassed Australia as the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to the coalition’s campaign.
And unlike some of allies who are better known for what they will not do than what they are willing to do when it comes to battling the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Georgian forces are “caveat” free. In the words of Gen. John Allen, the coalition’s overall commander, Georgia’s troops are “well led…respected by the people and…feared by the enemy.” Some 15 Georgian soldiers have died while serving in Afghanistan.
Of course, Georgia is not making this effort because it really has “a dog in this fight.” Afghanistan’s fate, as important as it is to the United States, will not have a decisive impact on Georgia’s own security. And, indeed, the political opposition in Georgia has called the troops deployed to Afghanistan “cannon fodder.” No, the reason Georgia has sent troops to Afghanistan—and Iraq, it should be added—is to show solidarity with the U.S. and NATO as it continues to strive for membership in that alliance. Tbilisi wants Brussels to see Georgia as a net-contributor to the West’s security as it continues efforts to distance itself from its Soviet past and connect itself with Europe, the U.S., and the broader liberal democratic world.
This is all the more critical for Georgia since it is the one country that was actually invaded by its neighbor Russia in August 2008. With the return of Vladimir Putin and his revanchist policies to the Russian presidency, Georgia’s immediate security situation is not likely to get any better.
On its face, one would think it would be in the U.S.’s interest to help Georgia to become more secure. But, so far, the Obama administration has slow rolled Georgia when it comes to providing the kind of military hardware needed to defend its territory—such as anti-tank weapons or mobile air defenses. Instead, for the past three years, it has offered a “brain before brawn” approach when it comes to supporting the Georgian military. While willing to help to train Georgian troops before deployments to Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s assistance effort has been confined to working with the Georgians in areas such as defense doctrine development, organizational reforms for the defense ministry, and military education. “Software” over “hardware.”
Now, no one would suggest that those things don’t matter. But there is no reason those efforts cannot be simultaneously matched with programs that provide real, honest-to-goodness, military capabilities. Having RPGs and training folks how to use them doesn’t require advanced degrees in military strategy. Just ask the Afghan insurgents. The fact is, the administration has simply not wanted to give Georgia any real defensive capability out of concern that it would offend Moscow and cause problems with its policy of “resetting” relations with Russia. As with so many of its policies, the administration’s focus seems to be less on helping friends and allies and more on not alienating potential strategic competitors.
If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it’s the fact that January’s meeting between Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and President Obama appeared to go well, with the Georgian president getting both face time with the American president and the kind of meetings with senior administration officials typically reserved for allies. Then, in late February, as a follow-up to the two presidents’ commitment to increase defense cooperation, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia Celeste Wallander visited Georgia and announced the cooperation would move into “new areas.”
Whether these “new areas” actually involve concrete programs to equip and train Georgian forces in an effort to beef up their homeland’s defenses is anybody’s guess at the moment. So far, the Georgians have been Charlie Brown to the administration’s Lucy with the football—with promises of substantive cooperation on defense never quite materializing. Hopefully, that game is over. But, like any ol’ reader of the comic strip “Peanuts” knows, a healthy dose of skepticism is probably still in order.
Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.