“We have to be with you.” Those words, uttered by a senior Georgian defense official to one of the authors of this article, neatly encapsulate the dilemma that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan presents for his small but strategically important country.
Since joining the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2004, Georgia has prided itself on its contributions to U.S. and NATO-led combat operations. These contributions allow Georgia to position itself as a security provider—and not a potential security liability. That positioning is critical to Georgia’s hopes for NATO membership, Tbilisi’s key foreign and security policy priority since at least 2004.
The Georgian Defense Forces have done much to make their country’s case. By 2007, 2,000 GDF troops were serving in Iraq, making it the third largest overall contributor to that mission, behind the United States and the UK. While many NATO states loaded up their contingents in Iraq with “national caveats” that constrained their ability to fight, Georgian forces operated caveat-free and had a reputation for hard-hitting action against insurgents.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 forced Tbilisi to withdraw its forces from Iraq, but just over a year after the war with Russia, Georgian forces were again deploying to NATO’s aid, this time to Afghanistan. By 2012, the Georgian contingent there numbered some 1,570, and as they had in Iraq, Georgian soldiers operated caveat-free and in one of the most dangerous regions of the country. When NATO-led combat operations formally ended in December 2014, Georgia maintained some 860 soldiers in Afghanistan, serving in force protection roles and as trainers. This made Georgia the largest-per-capita contributor to the mission and the fourth-largest overall contributor. In all, 22,175 Georgian soldiers served in Afghanistan and 8,495 in Iraq.
A Perfect Storm
The end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan is only one of several events leading Georgian policymakers to worry that their NATO hopes, always tenuous, could fade further. The withdrawal from Afghanistan also signals the end of the U.S. program to train Georgia’s forces deploying there. This program, named Georgian Deployment Program-Resolute Support Mission has stationed a contingent of U.S. Marines in Georgia since 2010. With no more Georgian units set to deploy to Afghanistan, these Marines will withdraw from Georgia over the next several months, ending a partnership of over 10 years.
By the end of the year, the Georgian Defense Readiness Program, or GDRP, will also end. The GDRP is the most ambitious U.S. capacity-building program undertaken in Georgia. By year’s end, this program, started in May 2018, GDRP will have trained nine Georgian infantry battalions.
GDRP differs from previous U.S. capacity-building programs not only in its scale but also in its goal. Where previous capacity-building programs trained Georgian forces only for counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, GDRP is explicitly designed to train Georgian forces to defend their homeland. It also contains a component designed to help Georgia sustain the capability the U.S. provided. The signal this sends to Tbilisi about U.S. support for Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and defense development is unmistakable and appreciated.
The end of the program, especially since it now coincides with the end of the mission in Afghanistan and GDP-RSM, inspires unease among Georgian government officials. Although the U.S. and Georgia are working jointly to develop a follow-on program, it will not begin until at least the fall of 2022, assuming it gains approval in Washington, D.C.
Understandably, as the GDP-RSM and GDRP initiatives end, the Georgians worry that their relationship with both NATO and the United States may stagnate. Tbilisi is therefore very much interested in understanding how it can contribute to NATO operations and maintain the strong bond its military forces have developed with NATO militaries, especially the U.S.
Proposals to Calm the Storm
It is important that the United States leads efforts inside NATO to keep engaged with Georgia and continuously improve the capabilities of the Georgian defense forces. Georgians are always looking for new ways to contribute to transatlantic security, and the U.S. and Georgia have a strong track record serving alongside each other. Here are five proposals on how Georgia can continue to contribute to regional and global security.
First, invite Georgia to contribute troops to the U.S.-led multinational battalion in Poland as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. To date, no non-NATO ally has contributed troops as part of that initiative, but if Georgian troops are able to serve in the NATO Response Force, they should also be able to serve in the eFP.
Second, invite Georgia to participate in the Turkish-led security mission at Kabul International Airport. At the most recent NATO summit in Brussels, Turkey announced it was willing to stay longer in Afghanistan to secure the main International Airport. Georgia already has a strategic partnership with Turkey, so it would make perfect sense for Georgia to participate in this important mission in Kabul.
Third, invite Georgia to participate in the NATO-led training operation in Iraq. As previously mentioned, Georgia has contributed over the years to Iraq’s security. Earlier this year, NATO announced its intention to ramp up its training mission in Iraq, from 400 troops to around 4,000. The goal is to help build the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces so there is not a repeat of what happened in 2014 when the so-called Islamic state captured huge swaths of the country, including the second largest city Mosul.
Fourth, consider inviting Georgia to contribute to maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf. The Georgian Navy was all but destroyed in the 2008 Russian invasion. Since then, Georgia has decided to focus on a building a Coast Guard capability instead of rebuilding its Navy. However, Georgia could provide boarding teams to be based on U.S. Navy ships. Admittedly, this proposal is unconventional, but is a creative way to involve Georgia in U.S.-led security operations beyond Europe.
Finally, take up Georgia’s offer to serve as a training center for NATO forces. The NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center offers a high-quality, large-scale training environment close to Tbilisi, where NATO forces can conduct exercises and training free from many of the restrictions found elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. The Georgian Ministry of Defense recently received high marks from the German military for support of the redeployment of German forces from Afghanistan, demonstrating that Georgia has the capacity to receive and support NATO forces on its territory.
Since independence, Georgia has been subjected to diplomatic, informational, military, and economic assaults by Russia. Its close relationships with Ukraine, Moldova, and other regional states under pressure from Moscow would allow it to integrate their experiences into the Center of Excellence. The Center would provide an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue and training in how to address the challenges associated with countering an ever-more-assertive Russia. It would also serve as another way to fly the NATO flag in Georgia.
None of these proposals is without challenges—or even controversy. For them to work, real political leadership and creativity is needed in Washington, Brussels, and Tbilisi. Tbilisi knows that its NATO membership is largely a political question now: it has already met or exceeded the military conditions required of previous post-Cold War applicants. Georgian leaders also understand that being in operations with NATO is critical to staying on the Alliance’s radar.
In Tbilisi’s view, deploying forces to NATO operations is necessary but not sufficient for membership: doing so does not guarantee an invitation to join, but failing to do so almost guarantees one will never come. Georgia also values highly the special relationship the U.S. and Georgian militaries have developed over their long history of training and fighting together.
Georgia is in a dangerous neighborhood, and Russia poses a constant threat. Nevertheless, Georgia has been able to implement serious defense reforms and continues to participate in security operations at a rate much higher than that of many NATO members. This is why the United States needs to work with NATO to ensure Georgia stays on track to membership and continues to improve the capabilities of its Defense Forces.
This piece originally appeared in Defense One