Associated Press Writer
October 10, 2005

CHAGCHARAN, Afghanistan (AP) — Lithuanians, who joined NATO just
last year, are faced with one of the alliance’s most difficult and dangerous missions — bringing security to the plateaus and peaks of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

Lithuania took on the daunting mission in poverty-stricken Ghor province after larger, more experienced NATO allies shied away from exposing their troops to risks of maintaining a force so remote from the strategic hub of the alliance’s Afghan peacekeeping mission in the
capital, Kabul.

The column of Lithuanian troops that escorted NATO’s top brass into Ghor’s provincial capital to meet local leaders last week showed the progress that the alliance’s newest members have made since seven former Communist nations joined in April 2004.

U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, supreme allied commander in Europe, says the Lithuanians’ decision to deploy to Chagcharan helped end months of deadlock as he struggled to persuade allied governments to commit troops for the peacekeeping mission’s summer expansion into western Afghanistan.

“Lithuania gave a great example to the alliance of a small nation doing great things,” Jones told reporters traveling with him in
Afghanistan last week. “Their actions motivated a lot of nations to re-look at their positions and join the operation.”

All the NATO newcomers contribute to the Afghan force, led by Romania which sent 400 troops from its elite “Red Scorpion” battalion to bolster security during September’s parliamentary elections.

Their participation has confounded opponents of NATO’s expansion who predicted the alliance would be burdened by its relatively poor new members whose militaries had to be built up from scratch or slimmed down and stripped of their Soviet-era doctrine.

“They have integrated into NATO remarkably well,” said Lord Timothy Garden, international security expert at London’s Chatham House think tank. “A lot of work has been done, and I get no feedback of any major concerns.”

Grateful to be under the alliance’s protective umbrella after decades of Soviet occupation, Lithuanians were keen to repay their new allies by helping out, said Maj. Eugenijus Vaicekauskas, who has the sensitive task of liaising between the NATO mission and local civilian authorities in Chagcharan.

“Most people (back home) say we have to provide help, that this is our contribution to NATO,” Vaicekauskas said in an interview.

While the new NATO members outstrip some of the more established allies in their political support for the alliance, they have been held back from joining missions by lack of money and military hardware.

A nation of 3.6 million, Lithuania is one of NATO’s poorest members. Its defense budget last year was US$313 million, dwarfed by the US$52 billion spent by France, US$462 billion in the United States, or even the US$3.6 billion by Denmark.

The Lithuanians are getting logistics help from the U.S. and other
allies in Afghanistan, but some are calling for an overhaul of the way NATO finances such operations, saying richer members should pool funding to ease the burden on countries that currently have to pay their own mission expenses.

“Costs-lie-where-they-fall is still a very important principle, but the world is changing,” NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in Afghanistan last week. “There is no consensus on this yet, (but) I think we can be much more cost effective if we do those sort of things together.”

Lithuania has about 200 troops serving in Chagcharan in one of nine “provincial reconstruction teams,” which NATO has scattered around the north and west of Afghanistan.

Morale among the Lithuanian soldiers is boosted by the fact that they earn 2 1/2 their usual salary during their four-month rotation to this mud-built city of 20,000.

Although Ghor has been relatively stable in recent months, with little sign of activity by Taliban insurgents, the dangers of the NATO mission were brought home in August when 17 Spanish soldiers perished when their helicopter crashed in neighboring Herat province.

For many Lithuanians the deployment of their troops to Afghanistan was particularly traumatic, as it revived memories of the 1980s when young men from the occupied Baltic states were sent to serve and die for the Soviet army as it battled to subdue Afghan resistance.

Vaicekauskas, 46, escaped the Soviet draft in his youth, but wary of psychological impact of Afghanistan on generations of Lithuanians, he dreaded telling his mother he was heading there. Her response, he says, was indicative of the country’s mood.

“There was a silence, then she said ‘OK, it means you won’t come to see me in the summer … but the reasons you are going now are completely different, and you have to go.’ There was not a single tear.”