Taliban Attack Kills 7 Georgian Soldiers in Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- In the deadliest single incident involving international troops 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; the earlier bombing, on May 13, killed three Georgians, according to Georgian defense officials. Helmand has been the deadliest province for troops who are part of 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 sent 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. They 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 the province.

The Georgians have three bases in Helmand, all in the north of the province, an area where the Taliban are fighting hard to regain ground: the districts of Nawzad and Musa Qala, and 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 they 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 P. Dunford, the commanding general for NATO and United States troops in Afghanistan, offered his condolences to the Georgian people and went out of his way to praise the Georgian contribution here.

"While this is a sad moment for the Georgian people and the coalition forces," he said, "we will not be deterred from our efforts to bring stability and security to the Afghan people.

"Georgia's support of the ISAF mission has been steadfast and tangible. While many have contributed to the security improvements in Afghanistan, Georgian soldiers have always stood out for their toughness and willingness to take on difficult missions."

The Georgian forces have sometimes appeared to lack the caution of troops from other nations stationed in Afghanistan. In an e-mail earlier this spring to reporters inviting them to embed 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 to foreign soldiers in the country and heavily influenced by the Taliban. The Georgians have bitter experience with this.

A Georgian soldier went missing 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 a British 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, Nawzad and Sangin with the provincial capital and with each other. However, that has not won them points with locals.

According to some local Afghan elders, the Georgian troops are not particularly well liked in the area, which had previously been manned by the British and in some places the Americans. Language may be the root of the problem, not only because locals 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 days when the Soviet Union occupied the country.

"They don't know English and speak a Russian-sounding kind of language," said Abdul Rahman Mutmain, an elder from the village of Landy-Nawa, where the Georgians have one of their three 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 locals complained that they conducted too many unnecessary searches and stole small items, like wristwatches and money.

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

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


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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