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Taliban Attack Kills 7 Georgian Soldiers in Afghanistan

July 3, 2013
The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — In the deadliest single episode for international forces in Afghanistan since August, a suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives attacked an isolated base staffed by Georgian troops in Helmand Province on Thursday evening, killing seven soldiers, according to Georgian and Afghan officials in Helmand.

It was the second truck bomb attack on a Georgian base in Helmand in less than a month; a bombing on May 13 killed three Georgians, according to Georgian defense officials. Helmand has been the deadliest province for troops in the international coalition in Afghanistan, claiming at least 935 lives since 2001.

The suicide bomber penetrated the outer perimeter of the base, but failed to get inside, the officials said. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack in a text message to journalists.

Georgia, with a contingent of 1,570 soldiers, is the largest non-NATO member of the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is called. Georgian troops patrol Helmand Province along with British and American Marines, helping to fill the gap left when the Americans sent home more than two-thirds of the nearly 20,000 Marines who had once been stationed in that province and neighboring Nimruz Province.

The Georgians have three bases in Helmand, all in the north of the province, where the Taliban are fighting hard to regain ground: in the districts of Now Zad and Musa Qala, and in an area near Sangin.

Gen. Irakli Dzneladze, chief of the Georgian Army joint staff, said at a news conference in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, that in addition to the seven killed, nine Georgian soldiers were wounded. The episode brings to 30 the number of Georgians killed in Afghanistan since the country’s troops arrived in 2004.

“I offer my deepest condolences to the families of our fallen heroes and to all of Georgia,” President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia said in a televised address. “Our duty to their memory is to continue our path toward NATO membership.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commanding general for NATO and United States troops in Afghanistan, offered his condolences to the Georgian people and praised the Georgian contribution here. “While this is a sad moment for the Georgian people and the coalition forces,” General Dunford said, “we will not be deterred from our efforts to bring stability and security to the Afghan people.”

“While many have contributed to the security improvements in Afghanistan,” he continued, “Georgian soldiers have always stood out for their toughness and willingness to take on difficult missions.”

Georgia’s forces have sometimes seemed to lack the caution of other nations’ troops in Afghanistan. In an e-mail this spring inviting reporters to be embedded with Georgian troops, a Georgian press officer described the area where they operate in Helmand as “the triangle of violence” but offered to take reporters “on foot patrols in Afghan villages and to meet locals.”

The offer struck many as dangerous because the area is among the most hostile in the country to foreign soldiers and is heavily influenced by the Taliban. The Georgians have bitter experience with this.

A Georgian soldier disappeared in December in Musa Qala and was found dead nearly two weeks later with signs of having been beaten and tortured by the Taliban.

He was the only ISAF service member known to have been captured since 2011, when aBritish soldier was captured and executed by the Taliban. The only other soldier known to have been captured is Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American, who has been missing since 2009 and is believed to be held by the Haqqani network.

The Georgians have focused on keeping the Taliban from setting up checkpoints on the main roads that connect Musa Qala, Now Zad and Sangin with the provincial capital and with one another. But that has not won them points with residents.

According to some local Afghan elders, the Georgian troops are not particularly well liked in the area, where previously the British and in some places the Americans had been assigned. Language may be the root of the problem, not only because residents became familiar with English-speaking British and American troops in the 10 years they were in the area, but also because Afghans often think of the Georgians as synonymous with Russians, who are still viewed as enemies dating from the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country.

“They don’t know English and speak a Russian-sounding kind of language,” said Abdul Rahman Mutmain, an elder from Landy-Nawa, a village where the Georgians have one of their bases.

“Once my car broke down near their base in Landy-Nawa,” he added. “They rushed towards me and forced me to take the car away from the area. I explained that I cannot take it away alone, but they didn’t help me to push the car, nor would they let me fix it. So they start abusing me, and I didn’t know what they were saying, and they didn’t know what I was telling them.”

He went on to describe the Georgians as behaving like “warlords” and said local residents complained that the soldiers conducted too many unnecessary searches and stole small items, like wristwatches and money.

Local Afghan officials confirmed the complaints of excessive searches, but Niamatullah Khan, the district chief of neighboring Musa Qala, pointed out that “searching cars is their job” and said that the Georgians were responsible for helping to secure one of the most dangerous areas in a dangerous province.

Mr. Khan said the complaints, which he received last year, had largely ceased, suggesting that either the Georgians had moderated their behavior or residents were getting used to them.