While the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) largest overseas mission at present, deployed to the West African nation of Mali, sees plenty of media coverage, a little known dimension of that deployment is the Special Forces (ESTSOF) component, investigative show 'Pealtnägija' reported Wednesday evening.
Mali, land area 1.2 million square kilometers – equivalent to the area of Scandinavia and the Baltics combined – is also one of several countries encompassed by the French-led Operation Barkhane, an anti-human trafficking, anti-terrorist effort brought into sharp relief against the military coup in Mali earlier this year, which saw control assumed by Colonel Assimi Goïta and the overthrow of Ban Ndaw as president.
Many Islamic fundamentalist movements dominate the sparsely populated, desert areas, "Pealtnägija" reported, with the around 100 EDF and Estonian personnel deployed also contributing to EU and UN missions there, as well as Barkhane.
The least talked about of these is Operation Takuba, based 1,200 kilometers from the capital city, Bamako, in northern Mali – the EDF deploys a regular infantry platoon to Gao, in the west of the country, on a rotational basis.
Lt. Col. Margus Kuul, ESTSOF commander, told the show that al-Qaeda is operating in northern Mali, and wants to establish its own separatist state there. They operate in an area of the Sahel region roughly equivalent in size to the whole of Western Europe, he added.
"While at the same time, ISIS also wants to create a so-called Islamic state i the Sahara, hence the quarrel between the two," he went on.
"But this is very good for the Western world. How so? Because they at least haven't been able to put their heads together in these mud huts in the Sahara, plus in this way they are not concentrated, making it so easier for us to fight them".
The Estonians were in fact the first other nation to join with the French forces in Operation Takuba.
Due to its hazardous nature, special forces were tasked with the mission, having already earlier conducted a similar mission in Afghanistan.
While the detailed information is confidential, the Estonians' task is primarily to train and support Mali's defense forces.
Notwithstanding the talk of bringing democracy and a values-based approach to Afghanistan prior to this year's U.S.-led withdrawal cooperation with the French in Mali is a guarantee of Estonia's security and of the terror threat to the Western world being reduced, Kuul said, not least given Mali's relative proximity to Europe.
"If jihadist Salafists were to come to power in the countries surrounding Mali, and Mali itself, we could then conceive of an Islamic state on the threshold of Europe which is even more extreme than the Taliban. We are already seeing what is happening in Afghanistan. So imagine that, six hours from Paris, such an Islamic state were to be created," Kuul said.
Both the EDF and defense ministry state that the Mali mission is fundamentally different from Afghanistan,
"The French have clearly sent out the message that they are carrying out military support, and not rebuilding the country of Mali," Kuul said.
But if there is no such goal, won't this war also be one with no end? Tuuli Duneton, head of the policy planning department at the Ministry of Defense, told "Pealtnägija" that: "It could be said to be the case, but on the other hand, it could also be said that terrorist organizations can still be eliminated and that the Malian people would then have a sufficient security environment in which to develop this society themselves."
Footage shown in the "Pealtnägija" segment (see video below, with Estonian commentary) was filmed especially for the show and demonstrated tactics and training not aired publicly in the past, though obscuring the current members of the unit – save for Lt. Col. Kuul as commander.
"I am the sole spokesperson, in respect of confidentiality, and the faces of special forces operatives, the persons serving in the unit, remain classified, since special operations carry out their operations covertly or secretly," he said.
Rapid action, disengaging from reflection on a situation and acting as trained are key for the unit, Kuul said. "This training is intense, but at the same time we take care of them very well. One simple example of is that we measure the amount of lead in operatives' blood streams. They do a lot of firing, and with that [measuring] we will, so to speak, prevent all possible work-related illnesses in the future," Kuul explained
Under the guidance of Estonian instructors, the Malian Defense Forces also train in everything from shooting, through to searching suspicious buildings and inspecting vehicles to combing through and taking control of larger areas.
"The Malian soldiers are curious, and the training we give will stick to them," Kuul went on.
"And it's best to see that when we go to the operation together. During the course of the operation, we can check how they act in the same way, give them instructions and give feedback at the same time,."
Hazards are still there, though. Only last week information reached the Estonian media, "Pealtnägija" reported, on how Estonian soldiers guarding the base in Mali had opened fire on a British contingent, who had not correctly identified themselves. Bomb attacks have also happened in the past.
Lt. Col. Kuul, recently back from Mali, said he cannot talk in detail about how many times they were shot at, how many potentially threatening individuals they captured or rendered harmless.
He confirmed that no Estonian has been seriously injured in Mali, while the opposing side has suffered losses in the exchanges of fire that occasionally occur.
The realities of this, Kuul summed up in frank form.
"And if they resist us, we, along with the Malian soldiers, will lend a helping hand to them to help them towards paradise. /.../ "It 's a zero sum game. So if we find an enemy who is resisting, who is attacking us or who is resisting us, then this is somewhat of a short story," Kuul said.
The Sahel and Sahara is a tough region in any case, but the geopolitics of the region has been shattering lately.
First, the French announced this summer that they would reduce their 5,000-member contingent by almost half, which was followed by the talks the Malian government started to hold with Russian private security company Wagner, to replace the personnel.
Working alongside the controversial private-hire army, one which is associated with war crimes and illegal activities, is in turn unacceptable to Estonia, Tuuli Duneton said.
"Should such a scenario, which we do not anticipate today, materialize, we will certainly discuss the various options and leverage measures within the Sahel coalition, of which Estonia is a member, as to what the coalition's common steps in such a situation are," Duneton said, adding that the EDF is not currently preparing to leave Mali, but that the issue is topical in political discussions and consultations.
"The question is what will happen if and when such an agreement is reached. And the EDF would be able to get out of any area of operation quickly. In other words, if it turns out to be true, we will be ready to leave quickly."
When asked if he would personally disappointed or sad if withdrawal was the result, Lt. Col. Kuul replied that: "I am a member of the EDF and, as a member of the EDF, I keep the order. One thing is for sure. Their goal, the goal of the jihadist Salafists, is to expand the Islamic state. This struggle will not end, but it has to be ended. That is a fact."
Editor: Andrew Whyte