Georgia Goes on PR Offensive over Afghanistan
Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
But other topics could prove trickier to address. 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.)
Saying that the piece had contributed to anti-NATO sentiments, Alasania was quick to slam the story. Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson Tedo Japaridze, a former ambassador to Washington, followed suit, noting in an op-ed that “[U]nlike the coverage of casualties suffered by other nations, including US troops, the [Georgian] victims of the attack are made to suffer a double victimization, being framed as essentially thieving barbarians,” fighting under the “exotic Georgian flag.”
The attack was followed by a YouTube warning that payback would come to Georgia itself for its participation in NATO's Afghan campaign. On June 11, Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili confirmed that the video was posted from Georgia, and claimed that it "has nothing to do with the Taliban," Civil.ge reported. He added that the FBI and Israel are helping Tbilisi in its investigation of the footage.