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Tbilisi (AFP) June 14, 2013
Clutching a hand-written placard honouring Georgia's "fallen heroes", Giorgi Lomsadze had to admit that most Georgians do not back his calls to pull the country's troops out of Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, he said a growing number of people in this tiny former Soviet state are asking questions after a spate of deadly attacks against Georgian soldiers serving in the war-torn country.
Georgia has some 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, making the small Caucasus nation of 4.5 million the largest non-NATO contributor to the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"We are asking: why should soldiers from this small country of Georgia be the ones fighting and dying for NATO in Afghanistan?" Lomsadze, a 19-year-old political science student, told AFP at a protest this weekend in Tbilisi, following the deadliest attack so far on Georgian troops.
Although several thousand people expressed support for the protest on social networking sites, just seven demonstrators actually showed up.
"We are demanding that they stop sending any more troops to Afghanistan and withdraw the ones we have there immediately," Lomsadze said.
Seven Georgian soldiers died and nine more were wounded on June 6 when a suicide bomber blew up a truck loaded with explosives outside their base in perilous Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold.
The attack claimed by the Taliban came just weeks after three soldiers were killed in a similar bombing, bringing the total number of Georgian dead to 29.
Yet Georgia's involvement in Afghanistan is seen by many here as a key stepping stone towards its long-term goal of joining the military alliance.
Georgia's NATO aspirations infuriate neighbour Russia, which fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008 and sees any further NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union as a threat to its security.
Originally ordered by US-ally President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004, the Afghan deployment has grown steadily since then.
It maintains the strong support of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Saakashvili's political nemesis, whose coalition triumphed in October parliamentary polls.
"Despite this horrible tragedy, nothing will break us; no one will make us retreat," Ivanishvili said in a video statement after the latest attack on Georgian troops.
"We will continue to fight for peace in the world," said Ivanishvili, who has made normalising relations with Russia a foreign policy priority while also promising to maintain Saakashvili's pro-Western course.
Since the June 6 attack Georgia's defence minister Irakli Alasania announced that NATO has agreed to close two Georgian bases in Helmand, including the one targeted by the latest blast.
For now though, calls for the country's total withdrawal from Afghanistan remain muted, with only the marginal Labour Party calling for a referendum on the issue.
Around 100,000 US-led ISAF troops are fighting a Taliban-dominated insurgency in Afghanistan in a conflict that began in 2001 following the September 11 attacks in the United States.
The US and its NATO allies are seeking to hand control of security to Afghan forces in withdrawing their combat troops by the end of 2014.
In February, Georgia reiterated a pledge that it is willing to continue deploying troops to assist local security forces after NATO's combat mission formally ends.
Analysts say that overall Georgians still back the Afghan mission -and the final aim of joining NATO was endorsed overwhelmingly in a 2008 referendum.
"Obviously when casualties take place then the popular sentiment is less favourable to the deployment, but the population in general still continues to understand the importance of this operation," said Sergi Kapanadze, a former deputy foreign minister and founder of Georgia's Reforms Associates think-tank.
Despite the internal political conflict between supporters of Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, continued involvement in Afghanistan is one of the few issues that the country's squabbling politicians agree on.
"On the major foreign policy issues the two sides have remained pretty close and there is still not much change from before," Kapanadze said.
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