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Afghanistan test for Georgian politics

By Messenger Staff
Friday, March 2
While appearing before Parliament on February 28, President Mikheil Saakashvili began his remarks with a minute of silence in honour of those Georgian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. The Georgian mission in Afghanistan has been a hot-button issue, particularly since the government committed to sending an additional battalion to the war-torn nation.

The Georgian presence in the NATO coalition started out small and slow, but has since become an important part of this country's foreign policy. Georgia’s participation in ISAF operations began in 2004, with 50 soldiers participating in the operation. In 2007, Georgian military doctors were sent to Afghanistan, and in 2009 the first Georgian battalion served, alongside French troops. Every 6 months, a Georgian battalion rotates into the most troubled region, the Helmand province. It is here that Georgia has experienced most of its casualties, with 15 servicemen dead. With the addition of another battalion, the total number of Georgians serving in Afghanistan will reach 1700, making it the largest non-NATO contributor to the mission, and solidifying Georgia's status as contributing more soldiers per capita than any other coalition country.

This has understandably led to some Georgians questioning why such a small country is contributing such a proportionally large number of soldiers. The government says that it is in the interest of the country and it's military to gain combat experience. Presumably, too, this cooperation will speed up Georgia’s accession into NATO – a gamble the Saakashvili government is committed to taking.

Last week, the President visited the Georgian contingent in Afghanistan, spending two hours speaking to the troops. Two days later, three Georgian soldiers died.

Many opposition parties, including the Georgian Dream coalition, promise that they will maintain Georgia's presence in Afghanistan if they are elected. “We are proud to be partners for such a country as the US, and other NATO members,” stated Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of Georgian Dream. Although no promises have been made yet, it is likely that a new government would adjust the number of soldiers serving the mission.

Other opposition parties, most notably the Labour Party, categorically oppose Georgia’s presence in Afghanistan. They proposed a ban on sending Georgian soldiers to that country at all. It is unlikely that such an idea will gain traction, as realistically, Georgia believes it must prove its commitment to NATO, by proving its commitment to that organization's missions.