Colonel Gintautas Zenkevicius, commander of the Lithuanian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Chaghcharan, Ghor province, western Afghanistan, announced on July 14 that the PRT has reached its initial operating capacity, as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. ISAF is currently extending its operations in western Afghanistan in order to provide security ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for September and to buttress stability afterward.
Among the Force’s new reconstruction teams, the one led by Lithuania operates in the most challenging conditions, in a remote province in the Hindu-Kush Mountains. Lithuania had initially been assigned to lead the PRT in the Baghdis province, situated in mostly flat terrain near Turkmenistan, with immediate access to the main overland supply line from that country, and within easy reach of ISAF’s logistics hub near Herat. However, Spain — an old NATO member with a population eight times larger than Lithuania’s — insisted on taking over the more convenient Baghdis PRT, while Lithuania’s military accepted to switch to the more challenging one.
Nearly 100 Lithuanians are now on the ground, soon to be augmented to 130, out of a planned 190 troops and a small number of civilian personnel in the Chaghcharan PRT. Denmark will send a reconnaissance unit, and Iceland has pledged several civil-affairs specialists, once the Lithuanians build up the camp and establish secure conditions around it. Britain trained the Lithuanian troops for the mission, and the U.S. military airlifted them and the heavy equipment. In late June-early July, Lithuania’s Armed Forces Commander, Maj.-General Valdas Tutkus, inspected the site at Chaghcharan and met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the ISAF command in Kabul. Lithuania’s Defense Ministry has earmarked 3.5 million euros from its own funds for this PRT.
The Lithuanian soldiers currently operate a mobile group for surveillance within a 50-kilometer radius of the camp in the daytime, returning to the camp for the night. Moving in civilian vehicles, the group is tasked to gather intelligence on the security situation, communicate with the local population, begin the process of arms-collection from civilians, and identify socio-economic problems in the area. The group’s vehicles, rented in Afghanistan, tend to break down and are scheduled to be replaced shortly with Toyota Land Cruiser jeeps. The old airfield near Chaghcharan necessitates extensive repair by NATO allies.
This PRT will have three mobile groups when it reaches full operating capacity by late August. At that point, the voluntary disarmament of local armed groups is expected to be well advanced, apparently as a precondition for their commanders to be able to participate in the September elections. An Afghan army unit and police unit is also deployed in Ghor province. Apart from this PRT, Lithuania had already deployed 25 soldiers with ISAF in Kabul and northern Afghanistan, as well as a 45-troop squadron with the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan since 2002.
Estonia currently deploys 20 military personnel (including 14 mine clearing and ordnance-disposal specialists) in Afghanistan, to be augmented to 25, which is the number authorized by the Estonian parliament. Currently stationed in Kabul, the Estonians will join the British-led PRT at Mazar-e Sharif in northwestern Afghanistan, in accordance with a British-Estonian agreement signed on June 17.
Mine-clearing and ordnance-disposal operations are significant niche-capabilities that Estonia’s small-size military contributes to NATO operations, including ISAF. During a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan from January to June, a squad of five explosive-clearance specialists from Estonia’s Rescue Department working in the provinces of Ghazni and Wardak destroyed 31,108 explosive devices and 744,820 rounds of ammunition. Estonian explosive-sniffing dogs regularly win contests against specialized units of the allied militaries.
ISAF, with an overall strength of approximately 8,000 from some 30 countries, operates through PRTs with an average strength of 200 to 300 in northern and, now, also western Afghanistan. PRTs are tasked to protect local representatives of the central Afghan government and international relief organizations, as well as to improve the security of road transport, watch local armed groups and promote their disbandment or resubordination to legitimate authorities, train local police, and provide security during elections.
(BNS, ELTA, June 30, July 1, 14; see EDM, February 26)