Report From Afghanistan

Masood, Afghanistan — Amid the debate in Washington over whether or not to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, it would be easy to overlook the fact that there are thousands of soldiers from other countries in the field with their American counterparts.

There are the British, with thousands of Tommies on the line and a flow of body bags to prove it. So, too, the Australians and Canadians. Germany also has troops here as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as do the Dutch, among others.

And then there are the truly small contingents, whose numbers are few but whose presence, for whatever the individual national reasons, underlines the international nature of the conflict.

The Estonians are a good example.

“In general … the people in Estonia understand we’re a member of NATO. We can’t just consume security we have to contribute to it,” said Maj. Janno Mark. “Looking at who is our neighbor you can understand why we have to be a good and active member.”

Mark is commander of the Estonian Contingent in Afghanistan — 289 men and women organized into two infantry companies that serve with British and American forces in Helmand Province, one of the country’s most violent areas.

The number 289 may seem paltry, even insignificant. But put into context the import of numbers changes.

Estonia, a relatively small piece of real estate on the Baltic Sea, has a population of about 1.4 million people. Its professional, full-time army is about 3,300 people. The Estonian Contingent then, is nearly 10 percent of that national force.                           

“Everyone here is a volunteer,” Mark said. “If you volunteer for the regular army you know you’re going to come to Afghanistan sooner or later.”

The Estonian’s main area of operation in south-central Helmand is Patrol Base (PB) Masood, a small compound of moon dust and earthen walls near a marsh and farmlands irrigated by canals built decades ago by itinerant workers.

The villages surrounding the PB are a mishmash of tribes, descendants of those workers who decided to stay on in Helmand after the project was completed.

“The tribal mix here definitely makes things difficult, complicated,” he said. “You have to approach every village differently to track the situation and understand the dynamics” of leadership and village support of insurgents.

Several villages, officers said, had strong leaders who not only stand up to the Taliban (as long as Coalition Forces are in the area for backup) but run their own village security teams and have signal flares to warn the Estonians of trouble. Others are less secure. More susceptible to Taliban intimidation but all need encouragement and “we have to keep their confidence” that they can be protected, Mark said.

However, the relative calm in the district can’t be taken for granted. Last week electronic surveillance equipment on the PB picked up a group of men acting suspiciously near a collection of housing compounds just a kilometer distant. The Estonians went to investigate and received several potshots in their direction. A mission the next day to check the spot again resulted in an ambush. 

“They started shooting as we were leaving the area we wanted to check out,” said 1st Lt. Alar Karileet. ‘It (the attack) was as well planned. The Taliban were in three positions of four to five men each, one of them in a village compound.

“I don’t know how many we killed, but artillery we asked for made a direct hit on one position and no one shot at us from there again.”

The Estonians believe the attackers weren’t local because “they wouldn’t have engaged us in a way that their property or family could be hurt,” Karileet said. “They’re probably from another village in the area.”

North of the Masood district, in central Helmand, the second company of Estonians operate with the British in an area where gunfire and improvised explosive devices detonating are a daily occurrence. Taliban presence there is heavier, Maj. Mark said, and a shortage of troops to provide security allows them to continue their campaign of intimidation and violence to keep villagers under Taliban control. 

“We’re still in a clearing phase in many places there. In others we had enough forces to clear but not to hold.  So it was pointless. We need more forces, including ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces). They’re the right forces for the holding task.”

Mark said three Estonians were killed and about a dozen injured earlier this month in the central area.

Clear and hold are fundamentals in counter-insurgency. Troops clear an area of the enemy then establish outposts and provide visible 24/7 security for civilians within that zone. That security allows for rebuilding and humanitarian projects that improve lives and connects the people with the government.

U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of ISAF, has called for a surge of troops to push back or defeat Taliban extremists who use Pakistan for safe-haven and to secure populated areas. The numbers spoken of range from 20,000 to as many as 60,000, but President Obama as yet to make a decision.  

U.S force levels by the end of the year will number about 68,000.  There are more than 30,000 allied forces in Afghanistan at the moment.

The Afghan National Army, which is more than 90,000, is meanwhile in varying stages of competency. International forces are training them but training still takes time.

“We need a lot more troops, we need to increase the ANA (Afghan National Army) a lot more,” said Afghan Army Gen. M. Ghorbi, a brigade commander in Helmand Province. “The Marines and British are helping us but I need more Afghan soldiers. We need 3,000-4,000 more (in Helmand) to do the job right.”

He also said he wants soldiers not only trained in combat skills and tactics but in hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency. “They must go out of the camp and talk and work with the people,” he said. 

Maj. Mark, who has served multiple tours in Afghanistan, said a parliamentary mandate that doubled the Estonian Contingent’s size as added security for recent national elections expires at the end of the year, but negotiations are underway between Estonia and the United States.

“We will continue our cooperation with the Americans. It is so important politically and strategically for us,” he said.

As for the Taliban that ambushed Karileet’s men: The Estonians plan to return and finish the fight.

 “We know they are there now,” 1st Lt. Karileet said. “Now it’s up to the commanders to decide when and where we deal with them.”