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Georgia as a transit route to Afghanistan

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, February 2
In an interview with the Associated Press President Saakashvili proposed using Georgian territory as a transit corridor for the NATO operation in Afghanistan. He offered Georgia's Black Sea ports for cargo transport and its airports as refuelling stations for planes flying to and from Afghanistan. This idea, which actually is not new, has caused heated debate. Some Georgians are happy with it, others not.

Saakashvili aired a similar initiative in July 2009 during US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Tbilisi. The Georgian leadership has two reasons to be genuinely interested in implementing this proposal. Firstly it wants to demonstrate its commitment to the NATO and US-led operations in Afghanistan and secondly it wants to secure its safety in the face of possible threats from Russia. However the US position on this proposal has not yet been clarified. Maybe the Russian threat is influencing American thinking too, as the US administration wants to continue pursuing its ‘reset’ policy towards Moscow and does not want to irritate it. However sooner or later NATO will either agree to Saakashvili's proposal or reject it.

Saakashvili thinks that Russia will not openly oppose this type of involvement in the Afghanistan operation. He insists that Tbilisi is interested in seeing a US military presence in the region but not as a preventative tool.

So far the US has used supply routes through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for this operation for logistical reasons. Some time ago the NATO Secretary General and Kazakh Foreign Minister signed an agreement on transporting cargo through Kazakh territory by rail but the US and NATO need a new transit route as the contingent of US military forces in Afghanistan has almost doubled. A route via the Caspian Sea is being discussed and Russian newspaper Kommersant states that a preliminary agreement has been reached. Under this agreement cargo will be transported through Georgia and Azerbaijan by rail and then across the Caspian Sea from Baku to the Kazakh port of Aktau and then via Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.

Saakashvili's proposal met an immediate reaction from analysts and politicians. Some analysts welcome Georgia getting more involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan, however some believe that before making this offer Saakashvili should have informed the public about it and received their endorsement. However it should be said that most of Georgia’s population clearly supports the idea, although it is impossible to achieve absolute consensus.

Opponents of Saakashvili see two threats in the proposal. The first is the possibility that it will irritate Russia and the second is that Georgia could become a target for the Taleban. Military analyst Temur Mikautadze, commenting for Alia, suggests that Saakashvili is creating an illusion that by doing this we will get into NATO but this is not going to happen. According to him participation in the Afghanistan operation is not in Georgia’s interest and it will yield no positive results.

Evaluating the present proposal in the global context, it can be assumed that this move, and sending almost a thousand soldiers to Afghanistan, are ways for Georgia to once again highlight its Western orientation. However the August 2008 Russian invasion has created a certain public frustration towards the West and encouraged openly pro-Russian statements from some politicians, though no one had previously been prepared to voice these since independence. Sending Western cargo through Georgia in such circumstances may therefore become controversial.