Georgian involvement in Afghan war – a key to NATO door?

American military specialists are beginning to train Georgian troops set to join the war in Afghanistan. But, the question remains, what is behind Tbilisi's decision to throw their servicemen onto the frontline?

A 750-strong Georgian battalion will be trained by a team of about 70 US marines for six months before it will be sent on a peacekeeping mission into the Afghan Islamic republic in spring of 2010.

Georgians seeing service in Afghanistan is nothing new.

Major-General Kote Shavishvili, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war, was in Afghanistan in 1979 fighting for the Soviet Union in its ill-fated ten-year conflict. As one of the first Georgians wounded in action he knows only too well the difficulties of military success in the country.

"We sincerely believed we were fulfilling our duty, our international duty. We also believed we were helping people in Afghanistan,” he said. “But as time went by, it turned out things were not that simple. Today the main question remains, what is the aim of sending our boys to Afghanistan again."

The training of the Georgian infantry battalion by a team of US marines is, according to the Pentagon, designed to prepare them for deployment next spring and ensure they are able to operate alongside coalition forces.

However, the move has triggered concerns in Russia: it was a US-trained Georgian army that waged war on South Ossetia a year ago. The Pentagon admits it's a delicate issue.

"While we want to be supportive of the Georgians and look forward to their contribution in Afghanistan, we don't want to be perceived incorrectly as supplying lethal capabilities that would elicit a Russian response," the Pentagon statement reads.

Nevertheless, many in Moscow believe Georgia is using Afghanistan as a convenient excuse to rebuild its army, which was left devastated by last year's conflict, and leave Tbilisi with renewed intentions to take back South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“It’s all in the Georgian defense minister’s words: he said the training of the battalion will be conducted according to usual standards, i.e. training for any kind of circumstances – not necessarily just for Afghanistan,” said Pyotr Goncharov, a political commentator. This means, he went on, “if they need it elsewhere – then it'll be elsewhere. I don't know if he implied South Ossetia or Abkhazia."

Senior Lieutenant Zurab Kobaidze spent more than five months fighting in Afghanistan in 1988 and remains deeply skeptical about Georgia's motives for going there now.

"We don't seem to have learned the lessons of history,” he says. “It was stupid to get involved there back then and this stupidity continues up to now.”

“It's a very complex region and I wouldn't want our boys to have been there – it won't serve any good. But at the same time, I understand that Georgia won't get NATO membership that simply. There's always a price to pay," Kobaidze said.

According to Georgy Kandelaki, the Deputy Chairman of Georgian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, there are two reasons its troops are heading to the war zone.

"Firstly, our servicemen will gain combat experience because they will be in the middle of combat action, and that is a really invaluable experience. Secondly, it will be a strong argument to support Georgia's NATO aspirations," he said.

Georgia’s desire to join NATO has been central to Mikhail Saakashvili’s foreign policy since he came to power in 2004. Whether his country’s involvement in Afghanistan helps him reach that goal is open for debate. But what it will do is give him a newly trained army, and in turn that'll give Moscow, South Ossetia and Abkazia some very real concerns.