Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very honoured to have the opportunity to say a few words at this ceremony to welcome back from Afghanistan the brave soldiers of the 33rd light infantry battalion.
For many years, Georgia has been a major contributor to our common effort to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven for terrorists and extremists. Nearly a thousand Georgian troops are serving in Afghanistan today. They are doing a great job. And you – members of the 33rd light infantry battalion -- have done a great job. Your duties in Helmand Province were particulalry demanding. But you met that challenge successfully. And displayed considerable courage. You are not only a credit to your Battalion, and your Brigade. You are a credit to your entire country.
The Georgian Government has announced its intention to make a further contribution to our common engagement. Once those troops are in place, Georgia will be the largest non-NATO contributor. For a country of just over four and a half million people, that is an enormous achievement. And it is a contribution for which all of NATO is extremely grateful.
We are now entering a crucial period in our engagement in Afghanistan. We have broken the momentum of the insurgency. The transition of our security responsibilities to the Afghans is on track to be completed by the end of 2014. And you have all been a key part of the progress we have made.
We will continue to stand by the Afghan people throughout transition and beyond. We will continue helping them establish their country as a stable, peaceful and increasingly prosperous member of the international community of nations. And I am confident that Georgia will be part of that continuing commitment.
Afghanistan is a very demanding mission -- for all our nations, and for all our militaries. But it is also a vitally important mission -- for the security of all our nations, and that of all our citizens.
Your service in Afghanistan is also vitally important in another way. It makes the personnel of the Georgian armed forces better prepared to work alongside their colleagues from NATO in other missions too. And this is a key part in your country’s preparations for NATO membership.
So you have not only helped Afghanistan to stand on its own feet. You have also helped Georgia move closer to Alliance membership. And that is one more reason for you to be very proud of what you have accomplished.
Let me thank each and every one of you in the 33rd light infantry battalion once again for your outstanding personal contribution to the progress of our common endeavour in Afghanistan. And let me close by paying tribute to the Georgian soldiers who have paid the highest price for that endeavour. We must make sure – and we will make sure -- that their sacrifice has not been in vain.