The Afghanistan link goes all the way to Georgia – not the US Georgia but the Caucasian Georgia, the post-Soviet republic independent since 1991. As the largest non-Nato contributor, the small country has been paying a heavy toll of lives on the battlefields of Helmand. Its participation to the Afghan mission is now being questioned at home after the latest casualties and the appearance of a jihadi video directed specifically against the Georgians. Guest author Diana Janse* offers AAN readers an unusual angle on the Afghan conflict.
On 6 June seven Georgian soldiers were killed and nine wounded in yet another bomb attack when a suicide bomber with a bomb-laden truck hit a post at a Georgian base in Helmand. That brings the total Georgian death toll in the Afghan theatre to 29 soldiers.
This could have been an occasion for Georgia to stand united behind its soldiers. This could have been an occasion to reflect over where Afghanistan is going. Or, it could have been an occasion to reflect on Georgia’s contribution to security in its broader context but also at home. Instead. what – up to the latest wave of casualties and the appearance of a strange jihadi video – had been a foreign policy decision taken with a broad national consensus in the country, turned in to another exercise of domestic mud-slinging.
Since 2012 Georgia is the biggest non-Nato contributor to the ISAF coalition – and also the largest in absolute terms, if one assesses its contingent on the per capita of its population – with approximately 1600 men in Helmand province, where they are deployed side by side with US troops. (1) The contribution is unique also because it comes with no caveats.
So what does a small, non-Nato, lower middle-income country with its own security problems – including a Russian occupation of 20 per cent of its territory and a turbulent neighbourhood – do in Afghanistan? From a Georgian perspective, it is largely about the country’s aspirations, supported by some 70 per cent of the population, to one day become a Nato-member. Georgia’s aspirations have been met with enthusiasm and support by some Nato-members, while others have remained sceptical or openly critical.
By its Afghan engagement, Georgia proves that it is not only a demandeur for security, but also a security provider; contributing to the greater cause of the alliance. Participating in the ISAF mission also means to gain significant combat experience. Both objectives hold a great relevance for the Georgian government in view of the fresh memory of the 2008 conflict against Russia.
However, the engagement in Afghanistan has not come for free. Training and equipment of the Georgian forces have been mostly provided by the US, but in terms of casualties, the country has paid a heavy price, as the 6 June Helmand attack has proven again. In the light of this sacrifice for the stability of the Afghan institutions, Marshall Fahim’s comment in his rare speech a few days later, suggesting that the Georgians sit still and do not try to defend themselves, was not only undiplomatic but also difficult to understand. (2)
The 6 June attack came just 24 hours after a video with threats directed to Georgia had been released on youtube. In the video (link here), clips of crusaders and dead bodies are combined with a voiceover that, in odd English, threatens to take the jihad to Georgia, to the families of its soldiers and to the Georgian president Mikhael Saakashvili himself. “We know your addresses”, says the voice, after showing photos and spelling out the names of killed Georgians in Afghanistan, all accompanied by some Western (yes) film-like music beats.
The “jihadi video” sparked a wave of speculation in Georgia, a country with a highly polarized political climate and where conspiracy theories abound. The President demanded that the interior minister – the two are from different and fiercely competing political parties – immediately find out who had produced and uploaded the video. The Interior minister stated a few days later that it had likely been uploaded from Georgia, whereas the Prime minister has hinted that the video resembled characteristic of videos fabricated from the President’s party.
A few days later, the interior minister suggested that the “jihadi-video”, apart from being uploaded in Georgia, might actually have been made by someone “well aware of the Interior Ministry’s technical and operational capabilities and recourses”, hinting that it can be a former ministry employee – presumably loyal to the President’s party – behind it.
To this day, there are far more questions than answers. Who, how and why produced and uploaded the video remains unknown, or unrevealed. Most officials, however, believe that there is no link between the people behind the video and the ones behind bomb attack.
* Diana Janse is Swedish ambassador to Georgia and Armenia and has worked in Afghanistan as Political Councillor at the Swedish Embassy from 2004 to 2006.
(1) Georgian troops were first sent to Afghanistan in 2004, in order to strengthen security in view of the first presidential election. Their presence, however, increased significantly only after 2009. In the same years a Georgian contingent also served in Iraq, always with accession to Nato in view. On Wednesday and Thursday last week a delegation of the North Atlantic Council, led by Nato’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, came to town to evaluate Georgian progress in light of the country’s Nato aspirations. During the visit, Rasmussen called Georgia ‘a model partner for NATO’ and added that the country ‘will become a member of this Alliance, provided you meet the necessary [reform] requirements’.
(2) All the more so, adds AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini, given that the Georgians have historically enjoyed a fearsome reputation in the eyes of the Afghans, who had to snatch their first independence from a Georgian contingent acting on behalf of the Safavid empire in the early 18th century. “Persians are but women compared to the Afghans, and Afghans are but women compared to the Georgians”, thus, according to Father Krusinski, an eye-witness of the Afghan occupation of Persia (1722-1730), ran the old Afghan proverb. Sure is that Mirwais Hotak, the “grandfather” of Afghan independence, had to take great pains to eliminate Gurgin (alias Giorgi XI of Kartli, the deposed monarch of Georgia made a vassal by the Safavids – known also as Shah Nawaz Khan, his name as a Muslim convert – find a picture of him here), who was acting as Safavid governor of Kandahar in 1709, and to repel an expedition led by Giorgi’s nephew Kai Khusrau two years later, before he could finally rest assured of his achieved independence.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020