Despite a massive pullout of many soldiers from the participating allied national armed forces, more than 10,000 remain on the ground there. Latvia’s National Armed Forces (NBS) soldiers continue their presence in the Afghanistan operation – but now under a changed mission, in their own words.
Offer advice and help, but no part in battle
The world is still trying to assess what these 13 years have demanded from the nations involved, whether for the soldiers themselves, or their families, and what happens next.
“It’s started to rain and it’s about 10 degrees. Rain is a rare thing here. Tomorrow the sun will be back…” says commander of Latvia’s contingent in Mazari Sharif Lieutenant Colonel Arvis Zīle, reached by phone from contrastingly snowy Dom Square as seen from the Latvian Radio building’s cozy window-side headquarters in Old Town.
Now NATO has officially folded its thirteen-year operation and launched Resolute Support as its follow-up, meant to train and consult Afghan forces without actually becoming involved in any actual fighting.
In recent years the number of international forces had grown to 130,000 soldiers from fifty nations, now there are 12,000 remaining to train Afganistan’s approximately 350,000-strong national armed defense and law enforcement police force.
Thirty of these soldiers are from Latvia’s NBS, based mostly in the north of the country at Mazari Sharif, with smaller numbers assigned to the capital Kabul.
Commander Zīle said the Latvian forces are already consulting local forces in their planning work. Despite the northern region being a hot zone for conflict, he added that “no direct attacks upon Latvian or other NATO forces have happened, but they do occur in this area though directed upon Afghan forces.”
NBS commander Lieutenant General Raimonds Graube called it logical that it was time the international soldiers step back from fighting in the Afghans’ place, but keep up their help from a distance. “We’re now at the level of withdrawal where we no longer participate in any active operations to secure the integrity of the state, as the local forces now have the skills necessary on their part,” he said, adding that the exception would be a direct attack upon their base.
Chaplain: Only four men lost, “thank God, perhaps”
Latvian soldiers served for eleven years in Afghanistan, beginning in 2003. During this time, four of them fell – corporal Dāvis Baltābols, sergeant Voldemārs Anševics, Privates First Class Andrejs Merkuševs and Edgars Ozoliņš. All received the Order of Viesturs for their valor.
“Soldiers don’t ask themselves the question ‘was it worth it?’ That’s what the family and journalists just want to know,” said Chaplain Elmārs Pļaviņš, who admitted to having had to bring tragic news to an injured or fallen soldier’s next-of-kin on several occasions. “He’s prepared for the sometime-somewhere scenario of giving up his life,” he pointed out. “Unfortunately we’ve carried some sacrifices, but perhaps, thank God, only four of our men fell, because the circumstances have been hard enough.”
Soldier: “Time to concentrate more on our own defense”
Major Aivis Mirbahs has served twice in Afghanistan, on his second deployment in 2012 actually seeing the heat of battle.
“If I may compare, it’s like a world championship in sports,” he said. It’s in Afghanistan where soldiers test their preparedness after training so hard to apply their demanding skills.
There will be changes to the daily life of the soldiers remaining now that the scope of the operation has been so drastically reduced and repurposed.
But for returning soldiers too, a new set of demands awaits them in the defense of their own homeland.
“We were like in a hamster’s wheel with this Afghanistan operation,” said Mirbahs. “As you know, this wasn’t the only spot, there were Mali and the Central African Republic. Now it’s time that we concentrate more on our own nation’s defense.”
Veteran journo: They’ve suffered terribly, but they are young and don’t want perpetual war
Reached at home by phone in London, Christine Lamb, veteran British reporter on Afghanistan since the Soviet pullout in the late 1980s, told LR: "Afghanistan has suffered terribly. This war has lasted more than thirty years and touched every single person – through injury or death. Many children have seen the dead and wounded, so this is a very traumatized nation” she stressed.
“At the same time, they are also quite young. Seventy percent are younger than 30-year olds and they want all the same things as youth in other countries. They’re on the social networks, the internet, watch satellite television and so they see how it is in other lands and they don’t want this war forever and ever.”
NATO: cautious optimism
At NATO headquarters in Brussels LR talked to Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs James Appathurai, a long-esteemed bridge between the organization and the world’s media as its spokesperson for many years.
He said there reasons both for optimism and concern, when asked whether NATO was trying to spin Afghanistan as a success story when the real situation is far from it.
“As for the Afghani self-defense forces, all of our military and other sector experts are fairly convinced of their ability to continue what we’ve started, that is to avert the creation of terrorist training camps, defend the unity of the nation and its government. Now that they have to do this themselves without our support and we think they are capable,” he affirmed.
“These are billions of euro invested and we retain more than ten thousand soldiers as a training operation we will pay around six billion for in the coming years, as well as ensuring a long-term partnership with Afghanistan. The new president Ghani has been very active so far and ready to found friendly relations with their neighbors as well. Of course there are many worries – the taliban’s activities, the need to improve relations with Pakistan.
“I’m personally conerned about drugs and money. Opium poppy growing has swelled in the last three years and the UN warns it will only grow bigger,” he cited.
“We are cautiously optimistic Afghanistan is on the right path,” Appathurai told LR.