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The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has shaken the resolve of troop-contributing countries from Washington to Canberra. Fading public support must be balanced against a need to bolster NATO and the wider Western alliance.

At such a time, the contribution of small, non-NATO states – such as those in the South Caucasus – often goes unacknowledged. However, the willingness of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to deploy troops in such an unforgiving war, when they have their own serious security threats to manage at home, is significant.

Georgia deployed a small contingent to Afghanistan in 2004 to assist with election security. Sending just fifty soldiers would be surprising, given Tbilisi’s staunch support of NATO, but its focus was always on the war in Iraq. The reasoning, perhaps, was that strong support of the Bush Administration’s war would encourage Washington to lobby NATO on Georgian accession, more strongly than if Tbilisi joined the multitude of contributors in the Afghan war itself.

However, US military trainers have recently restarted training Georgian forces, with the aim of preparing up to 1,000 soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare for Afghanistan (NY Times, August 13). These troops will be sent to Helmand province, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of British soldiers (Wall Street Journal, October 14). Deployment in such an unforgiving environment shows renewed determination by Tbilisi. Despite the knocks which its NATO membership process has received over the last two years, this is a sign that Georgia is still willing to shed blood for the Western alliance. How grateful NATO will be is still an open question.

Azerbaijan has had a longer involvement in Afghanistan, having had a small contingent there since 2002 – the first former Soviet country to do so. The commitment was increased to 90 soldiers in early 2009, and recently the Azerbaijani government has considered boosting the contingent further, in response to NATO requests for more troops (APA, October 26).

As the only Muslim-majority country in the South Caucasus, deploying troops to Afghanistan is a slightly more sensitive issue than it is in Georgia. Like the Turkish contingent alongside which Azerbaijani troops operate in Kabul, the focus is on patrolling and reconstruction, rather than outright combat. Direct fighting could provoke anger at home, particularly amongst religious conservatives.

The war has also created some concerning developments for Baku. In January, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security detained two men who had attended Taliban training camps, and who had actually fought against coalition forces in Afghanistan, including Azerbaijan’s own forces (RFE/RL, July 17). Although none of the men were much of a serious threat, such incidents undoubtedly cause concern in Baku. The requirements of fighting terror in Afghanistan must be balanced against the need to prevent an angry domestic backlash and the risks of radicalisation.

Armenia has been the most reluctant of the three South Caucasian states to send troops to Afghanistan. This reluctance reflects Yerevan’s closer ties with Russia under the umbrella of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) than NATO. Although, like Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia cooperates with NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, it has traditionally held the Alliance at arm’s length.

However, this looks to be slowly changing. On November 5-6, NATO’s special representative for the South Caucasus Robert Simmons visited Yerevan to discuss relations. The trip came up with few substantial results – agreements to deepen cooperation, and a polite declaration that NATO hoped for improved Turkish-Armenian ties – except one. Next year Armenia will deploy around thirty soldiers to Afghanistan, where they will serve under German command in the north (Azatutyun.am, November 6).

This is not a militarily noteworthy contribution (Georgia’s battalion-strong component could, on the other hand, make a real difference in overstretched Helmand). The significance is once again political. By its willingness to play a role in the Afghanistan mission, Yerevan is signalling its increasing commitment to NATO. This may reflect a more gradual shift west as relations with Turkey, the Alliance’s easternmost bulwark, seem to thaw.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Russia has regularly stated that the CSTO can and should pursue greater cooperation with NATO (RFE/RL, October 16). Moscow certainly has an interest in stabilising Afghanistan, and probably gave its unofficial blessing to Armenia’s contribution. In which case, could we see greater cooperation between the Alliance and the Kremlin on Afghanistan? In a region of the world where zero-sum politics is so often the rule, the resolve of all regional states to secure Afghanistan is an encouraging exception.

Admittedly, this resolve is often a secondary objective for the South Caucasian states. Each is committed to assisting in Afghanistan for its own reasons. Georgia’s decision to deploy 1,000 soldiers clearly demonstrates its enthusiasm for the Alliance. Iraq was ‘Bush’s war’ – to gain his support, Georgian forces served in the Iraqi desert. Afghanistan is ‘Obama’s war’ – to secure his backing, Georgian soldiers will serve in the valleys of Afghanistan. Azerbaijan’s smaller, long-term commitment to Afghanistan underscores its quiet, ‘multivector’ foreign policy: it is unwilling to anger Russia and Iran by deploying a larger force. Armenia’s small deployment is a tentative gesture of interest in greater ties with the West.

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