Toomas Sildam: Estonia did not embark on Afghan mission to bring democracy

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Then-Minister of Defence Jüri Luik visits Estonian troops in Afghanistan. October 2018. Source: Ministry of Defence

The nation of Afghanistan has demonstrated once again – as it had to the Soviet Union in the 1980s – that while it can be taken over by sheer military force, winning over society to your side, or defeating it outright, are not possible, senior ERR journalist Toomas Sildam finds.

U.S. President Joe Biden's recent announcement that his country's soldiers are to leave Afghanistan by September 11 this year – the 20th anniversary of the terror attack that prompted the original invasion – has seen most NATO nations and other allies involved following suit. For Estonia, this brings to a close the most deadly and dangerous foreign mission that the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) have been involved in since the restoration of independence nearly 30 years ago, Sildam writes.

Former defense minister and foreign minister Jüri Luik (Isamaa) was unexpectedly direct when commenting on President Biden's decision. 

We have not gone to bring democracy to Afghanistan, Luik told "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK); the main task for Estonia was to accompany the allies, to support them, provided that that is reciprocated where necessary.

That is all there is to it, Sildam goes on.

The reason the Estonian government, with the Riigikogu's blessing, sent EDF personnel to Afghanistan was Estonia's security. In other words, Sildam goes on, Estonia was in Afghanistan shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. and the U.K., and other allies, such as Germany, since the belief is those countries will be here in Estonia in return (as indeed they are – the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup at Tapa is U.K.-led, the NATO Baltic air policing duties are currently in the hands of the Luftwaffe, based at Ämari, and iconic U.S. warplanes, drones and special forces personnel have all been in the country in recent months – ed.)

The price of the near twenty-year war (for Estonia, which joined NATO in 2004 – ed.) has been nine fallen soldiers, 39 severely wounded and over 60 less severely wounded, Sildam adds, as well as the issues of re-adapting to civilian life upon return to Estonia.

On the other hand, it also provided close to 2,500 combat-hardened EDF troops who really know what it is like to be under fire fro the enemy in a real sense, and not just with shotguns either, and officers who really know how to lead.

This is invaluable experience, along with cooperation with international allies and all that brings, Sildam adds.

Loyalty to allies, cooperation with them and military experience – that was Estonia's takeaway from Afghanistan, Sildam adds.

This is cold comfort for the Afghan people, however, he adds.

Their losses through the course of this war are 100,000 children, women and men lost, while the country is still broken, one which could really only be called a state with concessions, Sildam adds.

The west leaving at a time when the Taliban is still present and is being taken over by extremist wings in provincial areas all help to make it seem, at least, that the U.S. and its allies, including Estonia, are leaving Afghanistan to fend for itself, he adds.

Nonetheless, it is also a truism – one noted by Jüri Luik in the fall of 2019 while in Baghdad, Iraq – that the west should not look for how to reform other societies by using war.

In other words, if a NATO ally attacks a sovereign nation, there will be a counter-attack come what may, which forces the hand of war, but ultimately, changing that country for the better may not be viable.

In fact, the west, while it is bringing its soldiers home in a few months' time, cannot leave Afghanistan alone, or forget it altogether. This will be a challenge, since it inevitably spells working with the Taliban.

But a failed state left to fester may sooner or later become a headache, or in fact a threat, to many, Sildam adds.

To paraphrase "The Little Prince", one is always responsible for everything one has tamed, or tried to tame.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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