Small Nation Helps Build Democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Feb. 1, 2006 Estonia is helping two nations rebuild in the wake of extremism and a violent dictatorship. Its forces are now deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country is a coalition partner at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
An Estonian soldier checks a map while patrolling in Iraq. Estonia has troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Photo courtesy of Estonian Defense Forces
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
Estonia sent 23 soldiers to Afghanistan, a number that will grow to 150 by 2007, said Estonian army Maj. Kuido Pettai, the senior national representative for Estonia at CENTCOM. The soldiers supporting Operation Enduring Freedom are performing explosive ordnance disposal duties and helping collect human intelligence.
In Iraq, Estonia deployed a 34-person light infantry platoon to Taji Military Training Base, just north of Baghdad. The platoon is patrolling, conducting search-and-cordon operations and providing quick-reaction forces.
About 6,000 personnel serve in the Estonian Defense Forces. The country of about 1.4 million people gained its independence in 1991. By comparison, Hillsborough County, where MacDill Air Force Base is located, has about 1.1 million people.
"We have very positive opinions from the Iraqis," Pettai said.
He said Iraqi elected leaders personally asked Estonia's prime minister to keep his troops in Iraq -- a commitment that will be honored through at least 2007, Pettai said.
The small nation has suffered casualties in Iraq. Two Estonian soldiers have died in Iraq as a result of attacks with improvised explosive devices, and 10 more have been wounded in action.
Pettai said plans call for the Estonian army to be deployed to a region in Afghanistan that is responsible for 40 percent of the poppy production in Afghanistan. It is a mission the Estonians will do carefully, but willingly, Pettai said.
"I feel very good about it," Pettai said. "Sometimes we have to go to places that are dangerous."
One dangerous place the Estonians entered in Iraq was Fallujah. They rolled into the besieged city driving three trucks, while most coalition forces entered the restive town in armor-plated vehicles.
The U.S. and Iraqi soldiers joked that the Estonians must have thought they were made of stone for driving without armor protection. The platoon, battle-hardened by IEDs, eventually earned the nom de guerre, the "Stone Platoon," a play on words from its Fallujah mission as well as a modified version of the country's name.
Luckily, Pettai said, nothing happened to the soldiers who traveled without armored protection.
But things have happened as a result of Estonian peacekeeping operations in their area of responsibility and through logistical support to Iraq, Pettai said.
"When they've participated in search operations, they've captured high-value targets and found weapons caches," Pettai said. The Estonians also have detected attacks before they were launched. For example in one mission, "they saw two trucks with two mortars," Pettai said. The Estonian forces gave chase, engaged the insurgents and killed them, capturing two mortar systems and rounds in Iraq.
Last year, Pettai said, Estonia donated its full inventory of AK-47s to Iraqi security forces when the Estonian Defense Forces switched to another weapons system. They are also combating IEDs with their counter-IED program - a joint effort between Estonian governmental universities and the military.
"Our guys are very motivated to go," Pettai said about the Iraq deployments. "Some have already gone two times."
While Estonia is far away from Ground Zero in New York, the global presence of terrorism has appeared on Estonian borders.
"Our secret police announced last year that 250 people wanted to come into Estonia, but they had relationships with terrorist organizations," Pettai said. Subsequently, those individuals were denied entry.
Russian troops withdrew from Estonia in 1994 after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. The country joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Estonian forces also have participated in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo.