KABUL: There is mounting criticism in military and diplomatic circles of NATO members like Germany, Spain and France which refuse to send their troops south from the relatively stable north and west where they can afford to focus on reconstruction rather than fighting. Their imposition of numerous conditions, or caveats, on the use of their forces leaves it to Britain, Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Romania, Denmark and Estonia to bear the brunt of the fighting in the volatile south.
At a NATO summit in Latvia last November, the alliance’s head, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, criticized the caveats for eroding operational effectiveness. “We can ill afford reconstruction armies that cannot handle combat,” de Hoop Scheffer said, while US President George W Bush also urged countries to step up to the plate and fight. “Like Estonia, member nations must accept difficult assignments if we expect to be successful,” Bush said on his way to the summit.
While that country enjoys the good graces of NATO Command and the White House, its public has mixed feelings about the foreign involvement since Estonia was admitted to the military alliance in 2004. The step is widely seen as providing security against potential aggression from neighbouring Russia. In a recent poll of 1,000 citizens that was commissioned by the Estonian Defence Ministry, 73 per cent of respondents supported membership of NATO and 50 per cent were in favour of participation in international missions. But support for specific missions was lower: 36 per cent backed the continuation of the Estonian mission to Iraq, where two soldiers have been killed, while support for the Afghanistan and Kosovo missions was 35 and 40 per cent respectively.
“Most people don’t understand that we have a responsibility before NATO,” said Lieutenant Andre Austa, 28. “If we want someone to help us we must help them.” For members of the new company, the tour in Afghanistan offers valuable hands-on experience, a substantial combat pay increase and a personal challenge to test their metal in the toughest conditions.
“It was my dream to come here, I wanted to see what it’s like, not as it’s shown on TV but to see the real war,” said Ivan Tsygankov, 29, as he sat in the shade of an armoured car parked on the firing range. “But let’s see after our first contact (with the enemy) if this is a place I want to be.” And contact is almost guaranteed as Helmand steadily heats up in all respects. The province’s massive crop of opium poppies, a chief source of Taliban income, has now been gathered, leaving thousands of young men unemployed and ripe for the insurgents’ other seasonal harvest of fighting hands.-SANA