Georgian President proposing supply route for US arms to Afghanistan

Georgian President proposing supply route for US arms to Afghanistan

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili says he has proposed to the United States that his country become a logistics hub for the expanding U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. That might be a difficult offer for the Obama administration to accept. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Saakashvili outlined a Georgian proposal to develop a corridor for armaments across Georgia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. Georgia is offering its Black Sea ports to Western military supply ships and its airports as refuelling points for cargo planes.

U.S. Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the Defence Department's Transportation Command, said the department is aware of Georgia's willingness, but has not substantially explored the proposal. The White House would not comment.

Saakashvili has long sought to steer Georgia toward the West and eventual NATO and EU membership. That course has been in doubt since Georgia's war with Russia in 2008 that ended in a cease-fire with Russian troops just miles (kilometres) from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Georgia also has been unnerved by U.S. President Barack Obama's move to reset relations with Russia and the ambivalence in Washington and many European capitals about Georgia's Western integration.

The idea of an influx of Western military supply ships sailing the Black Sea would be likely to rile Moscow. But Saakashvili points out that Russia has said that U.S. success in Afghanistan is in Russia's interests.

"I don't think that Russia can openly object to this," he said.

Georgia is interested in having a greater U.S. military presence in the region, Saakashvili said, but not as a deterrent.

"The best containment of Russia's adventures in this region is political," he said. "I don't think the Americans have the resources to do it militarily, and I don't think this route can in any way even indirectly serve as military containment or deterrence."

Saakashvili said the idea was first presented to Vice-President Joe Biden when he visited Georgia in July. He says that he has discussed the idea with the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus.

The offer follows extensive Georgian contributions to U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan that include a commitment of 900 combat troops, a high number for a small, relatively poor country. It comes as the United States is ramping up its operations in Afghanistan and looking for ways to boost supply.

"Part of our business model is options," said Aandahl of TRANSCOM. "We need to have options into Afghanistan."

The United States already uses a supply corridor through Russia and Central Asia, besides its primary route via Pakistan. On Wednesday, NATO said that Russia had expressed interest in developing more routes. Those routes as well as one already operating through Georgia are not sanctioned for arms shipments.

It is unclear whether the other countries along the route Georgia has proposed would consent to allowing arms. Georgia has proposed a possible route by boat, rail and road from Romania over the Black Sea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Saakashvili says that Georgia has been talking to the other countries and believes that opening the corridor is possible. He says that the route would be more direct and cheaper than the more Northern route traversing Russia.

But Andrew Kuchins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has researched the Afghan supply routes, said the Russian route currently is less expensive.

In the AP interview, Saakashvili also commented on the presidential election in nearby Ukraine. He said he feared that the country, which also once seemed on a path into NATO, could face turmoil after the runoff on Feb. 7. Analysts are predicting a close race between Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych.

"The worst outcome of the election would be if we get weak government and continued turmoil," Saakashvili said. "No matter who wins, there will be very strong opposition that will be capable of paralyzing the government. The worst case scenario is that Ukraine continues to be a mess."

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