- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2009


As the United States prepares to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the Obama administration is about to repeat one of its predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq by accepting soldiers from a non-NATO country, Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia, to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Like the Bush administration, the Obama team seems too focused on its war priorities to assess the possible unintended consequences of this decision for the shaky relationship between Georgia, Russia and the United States.

Georgia’s president appears desperately eager to secure defense commitment from the United States through NATO membership. He energetically cultivated the George W. Bush’s administration in rhetoric and action, including by deploying soldiers to Iraq in August 2003. The Georgian force eventually grew to more than 2,000 before being withdrawn as a result of the country’s August 2008 war with Russia.

That Georgia should want an alliance with the United States is eminently understandable; it has the poor fortune to lie along Russia’s border. Even before the so-called five-day war, Moscow’s foreign policy had become increasingly assertive during the past decade.

Russia dwarfs most of its western and southern neighbors. Now Russia has seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are almost universally recognized as Georgian territory, and established them as independent protectorates. Moscow also invaded Georgia proper.

The problem with a closer U.S.-Georgian military relationship is that Mr. Saakashvili wants the United States as an ally to serve his interests and perhaps Georgia’s at the expense of American interests.

Moreover, by accepting Georgian assistance in areas that are important to the United States, the administration creates a legitimate expectation of reciprocity that it appears very unlikely to fulfill. Unfortunately, administration officials are further muddying the waters with sweeping statements of support; the U.S. secretary of state welcomed the Georgian contribution by saying, “We very much stand with the people of Georgia.”

The Georgian president already seems to have wrongly assumed that his small nation would receive much more help from the United States than it did when he ordered his forces to attack Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. That miscalculation contributed to a tragic and devastating conflict.

Some might argue that Mr. Saakashvili could not possibly make the same mistake - counting on American military support against Russia - again. What suggests otherwise are his statements justifying his decision to send more than 900 Georgian soldiers to Afghanistan, where his country has no particular interests at stake outside its relations with Washington. “While our allies - in this case, the United States and Europe - are switched on other issues, our enemy is getting active. Sooner the Afghan situation is resolved and sooner the war is over in Iraq, Georgia will be more protected,” he said.

The implication is that by helping the United States to prevail in Afghanistan and Iraq, Georgia can win greater American support against its “enemy” - Russia. Remarkably, Mr. Saakashvili does not seem to have noticed that even his biggest booster, Mr. Bush, did not refer to Georgia as an American “ally” because it was not. Nor does President Obama. More important, neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Bush referred to Russia as an “enemy.”

There is no clearer demonstration of the gap between American and Georgian interests - or of Mr. Saakashvili’s goals in sending Georgia’s soldiers to Afghanistan.

Others will suggest that the Georgian deployment is important to the training of Georgian forces to further develop their ability to work with NATO troops and to deepen Georgian cooperation with NATO. This is dangerous. Again, Mr. Saakashvili: “Unlike some of the European states, our contingent has no restrictions in respect of engagement in combat operations. … This is a unique chance for our soldiers to receive a real combat baptism. We do not need the army only for showing it on military parades.” This declaration comes even as the United States is trying to reassure Moscow that American programs to train Georgian troops will not increase their capability to fight Russian soldiers.

The United States has vital interests in Afghanistan. Now that Mr. Obama has decided on his strategy - for better or worse - it is important for the United States to rally additional troops from America’s allies and perhaps even from partners who are not yet allies. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Russia’s many evident shortcomings and the uncertain future of the “reset” with Moscow, America has vital interests at stake in U.S.-Russian relations and in European security as well.

Thus the administration should consider very carefully any changes to the status quo in its relations with Georgia.

Georgia deserves U.S. support for its sovereignty and reconstruction as well as in avoiding involuntary dismemberment.

However, Mr. Saakashvili must understand that the United States has no military commitment of any kind to Georgia, and especially no commitment to the armed return of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to his control.

Frankly speaking, Georgia’s leader cannot be trusted with an American defense commitment because he seems much too determined to invoke it. In this environment, accepting a Georgian troop contribution in Afghanistan creates unnecessary and dangerous confusion about the U.S.-Georgian relationship.

The Obama administration should think twice before proceeding.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of the National Interest. He served in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

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