Battle Rattle

Will Georgian sacrifices in Afghanistan result in NATO membership?

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An honor guard carries the remains of a Georgian soldier back from Afghanistan in May (Associated Press photo)

June has been a rough year in Afghanistan for one of the Marine Corps’ closest allies, the Republic of Georgia. The small eastern European nation has lost at least 10 soldiers in recent attacks, including a June 6 truck bomb ambush that killed seven and wounded nine others in Helmand province’s Now Zad district. Another bomb in May in Musa Qala district killed three Georgian soldiers.

It’s at times like these that Americans should remember just how closely the Georgians and U.S. Marines are intertwined on the battlefield. The Georgians began deploying a battalion at a time to northern Helmand in 2010, and later upped the commitment to two battalions comprising about 1,500 troops. They’ve served primarily in volatile sections of Musa Qala and Now Zad districts, areas that U.S. Marines know well. They fall under the command of Regional Command-Southwest and Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, with few strings attached.

The losses have riled the Georgian people and led to calls in Georgia for troops to be brought home. A New York Times piece covering the June 6 bombing further further exacerbated the issue, focusing on how Georgian troops are perceived negatively by Afghans. From the site EurAsiaNet.org:

The public outpouring of anger at the deaths was further exacerbated by a New York Times piece about the June 6 attack, which posited that Georgian soldiers’ supposed recklessness and “warlord”-style behavior are fueling Afghan dislike of Georgian troops.

Within Georgia, where many residents avidly read prestigious Western news publications and are acutely conscious of their country’s reputation in the West, the story was seen as a direct slap in the face, and dishonoring the memories of the dead soldiers. Many interpreted the story more as a reflection of US views than Afghan views and, consequently, felt Georgia’s contribution to the Afghan campaign, despite the cost in lives, is unappreciated and ridiculed.

A quote from one Afghan elder that the soldiers speak “a Russian-sounding language” only added insult to injury. (For the record, Georgian sounds nothing like Russian.)

I visited a couple Georgian bases while traveling with U.S. Marines last fall, including Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazay, the reported site of the May bombing that killed three Georgians. Generally, the two have worked together well, even with the language barrier.

U.S. Marines also continue to deploy to Georgia to work with the nation’s military as part of the Georgia Deployment Program, which was expanded in 2011 as the government there agreed to send two battalions at a time to Afghanistan.

There’s another subtext to all of this, however. Georgia’s commitment to the war effort in Afghanistan comes in part because of its deep interest in becoming a part of NATO, a move that would afford it some clout while dealing with neighboring Russia. The Georgians were clobbered in a brief 2008 war with the Russians, and the effects could still be seen in the Georgian countryside when I traveled there with now-retired Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent in 2011 to report this story.

Russia has warned Georgia against joining NATO, but Georgian officials have made it clear they are interested anyway. The question becomes: Will membership be offered after Georgia’s sacrifice in Afghanistan, or not?

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