Saturday, June 20, 2009

NATO's Baltic members endure testing times in Afghanistan - Feature

Nad-e Ali, Afghanistan - Using small arms, boobytraps and rockets, Taliban insurgents notched up a succession of casualties on the new company of Estonian troops within a month of them deploying in southern Afghanistan. A burst of rifle fire severely wounded one soldier on the first patrol by Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and a comrade lost his legs to a home-made bomb two weeks later.

A third soldier died and three were wounded in a June 15 ambush, bringing to four the number of Estonians killed here in the past two years.

"It's hard, those incidents happened in the beginning of the deployment, the contingent didn't get time to settle in," the commander of the 140-man force, Major Janno Mark, said after the initial injuries.

"It was a shock for the company but I hope it also got them on the right track and showed the need to maintain their combat drills," he added.

At the other end of the country, in the north-eastern Kunar province, a small unit of Latvian troops also suffered that country's first fatalities in Afghanistan. Two men died together with three American and three Afghan soldiers when insurgents overran an observation post in early May.

And one year ago, Lithuania lost a man killed in the central province of Ghor when gunfire broke out as hundreds of people protested over a US soldier's shooting of a Koran in Iraq.

For these relative newcomers to NATO - the three former Soviet republics joined the western military alliance in 2004 as a buffer against potential aggression from Russia - it is a matter of principle to pitch in alongside the larger members in Afghanistan.

"We can't only consume security, we must provide security, that's also the statement the politicians make when the public ask what we are doing in Afghanistan and say we should bring the troops home," Mark said.

But in the current tough economic climate, support for this expensive mission is dwindling in his country. While the majority of the population supports membership of NATO, a January opinion poll showed that only 30 per cent of Estonians back the Afghan involvement, down from 35 per cent six months earlier.

Unaccustomed to taking casualties like the US or British forces, each loss hits hard in this tiny country of 1.3 million people.

Hours after the death of Master Sergeant Allain Tikko, a 30-year old father of two on his fourth overseas tour, government officials in Tallinn said in a statement that this would "not diminish Estonia's firm desire to continue the Afghanistan mission."

Describing Tikko as a 'courageous and capable fighter', it stressed that the forces fighting in Afghanistan "make grievous sacrifices in the name of the security that we feel every hour of every day in our own independent nation."

Moreover, Estonia not only intends to maintain the military presence but will still double it as planned to boost security during Afghan presidential elections due in late August.

With more than 10,000 British, US and Danish troops deployed in Helmand, Estonia's relatively small numerical contribution might to some commentators seem more of a gesture of political goodwill than a valuable military asset.

But with many of the Baltic troops on their second or third combat tours, their British counterparts describe them as a useful resource that is "well trained, well equipped, well motivated and well led."

"Hats off to them for coming down here and operating in Helmand, which is one of the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, commander of the province's Battle Group Centre South where the Estonians are located.

"NATO needs members who will sign up and do the full range of tasks," Thorneloe said.

Earth Times


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