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Tiny Estonia keen to make large contribution in Afghanistan fight

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 26, 2009

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NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — An hour earlier, the tiny patrol base had been rocked by the low thud to which the soldiers here have become grimly accustomed. It was the fatal sound of a comrade tripping an insurgent bomb. Silence hung over the normally chatty platoon.

But there was little time for reflection in this opium- and Taliban-rich part of central Helmand province. The soldiers, 2,500 miles from their homes in tiny Estonia, clipped their chin straps, readied their rifles, and walked out the front gate just a few hundred yards from where their friend’s body had been carried off the battlefield.

"We do what we have to do — we are soldiers," said Lt. Tanel Rattiste, 24.

While other larger European countries have limited how and where their soldiers can operate, Estonia has been keen to prove itself to its NATO allies, maintaining a combat force of about 150 soldiers in some of Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas and doubling that briefly during the country’s elections in August.

Estonia’s combat contingent is spread across two rough-hewn compounds in a rural valley that alternates between lush green and tan-gray desert, where farming is the main source of livelihood and many of the roads are riddled with mines.

Estonian soldiers have been engaged in heavy combat since arriving in 2006. Despite their small numbers, they’ve lost seven soldiers, the latest being Sgt. Kristjan Yalakas, 19. Yalakas tripped the booby trap near Patrol Base Wahid while preparing to check a compound Dec. 15. Two days before that, another soldier was seriously injured in a similar bombing, the 57th Estonian to be injured in Afghanistan.

This year has been the deadliest for the Estonians in Afghanistan, with four soldiers killed. In a country with just 1.3 million people, everything the soldiers do is scrutinized, every death a big national story.

“Of course it’s hard for a small country to accept the casualty numbers, but it’s the war; it’s our responsibility as a NATO country,” said Maj. Sergei Guselnikov, 36, the company’s stony-faced, chain-smoking commander.

Estonia is a Baltic nation, bordering Latvia to the south and Russia to the east, but is culturally and linguistically Scandinavian. They are cousins of the Finns, though unlike their much larger, neutral neighbor to the north, Estonia endured decades of Soviet occupation after World War II.

Like many of their neighbors eager for a security buffer from Russia, Estonia has been an enthusiastic U.S. ally and NATO member, sending troops to Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Guselnikov said soldiers developed a quick rapport with their U.S. counterparts in Iraq but they still have some convincing to do with the British soldiers with whom they work in Helmand. Still, the company’s efforts have caught the eye of British leaders.

“They’re very new and I think they’re very keen,” Brig. James Cowan, who oversees the British contingent in the south, which includes the Estonians and Danish forces, said during a recent visit to Patrol Base Wahid. “Denmark and Estonia are small countries but they’re doing great things for the coalition. Estonia has been a staunch ally of America and Britain and they have sacrificed a lot of soldiers in this campaign.”

At Wahid, soldiers live, quite literally, close to the earth, inhabiting a low-slung, verminous mud-straw compound and sleeping in dirt-floor rooms. With no kitchen, meals consist of drab British meals ready to eat, or MREs, an acronym jokingly given many alternate meanings by the soldiers, all referring to the intestinal discomforts caused by their diet.

There’s little to do at the tiny base and soldiers pass the time chatting, smoking cigarettes and watching “South Park” DVDs on their laptops.

Amid the dirt, rodents, and bad food, though, the soldiers have constructed one comfort from home — a Finnish-style, wood-fired sauna that gets so hot that a visiting reporter at first struggled for a breath in the blistering steam.

“A sauna and a beer are good on a cold night,” one soldier said, handing a reporter the customary post-sweat bottle of Beck’s nonalcoholic brew.

The Taliban have left many locals fearful of talking to coalition troops and the Estonians, like many of their NATO counterparts, struggle to persuade them to help them root out insurgents. During one foot patrol an Estonian intelligence officer, who by custom only agrees to be quoted anonymously, spoke to an opium farmer who lives near Patrol Base Wahid.

The farmer warned the officer that his soldiers were about to cross a heavily mined road and pointed out a safe path set off by locals with yellow markers. But when the intelligence officer asked why the farmer hadn’t gone to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah to get the free wheat seed offered by NATO in order to stop farming opium, the man scoffed.

“The Taliban will catch me and beat me and say that I am one of you (if I go to Lashkar Gah),” he said.

Sorting out who’s who in an area where several hundred yards can separate friendly territory from Taliban stronghold, and where insurgents have learned not to walk around in the open while armed, can be dizzying for the soldiers.

“It’s not even a chessboard — good, bad, good, bad — it’s just so blurred,” the intelligence officer said.

During one tense night of warning shots fired from guard towers to scare off locals suspected of casing the base, there’s a hopeful sign: A local elder brought fresh flatbread from a nearby village as a goodwill gesture. Fresh bread is like gold in a base with only rations, and soldiers quickly tucked in. It’s also a small sign the company is making inroads, says Capt. Viljar Kurg.

“It’s not about the bread, it’s about how the people feel about you.”


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