The Success of Foreign Missions Is Crucial for Us
Those who suggest that the Estonian Defence Forces should pull out of a international crisis zone for domestic political reasons and offer something else – something ‘abstract’ – in exchange for our military contribution remind me of Tõnisson from Oskar Luts’s Suvi who did not want to give his signature to Toots, but was too stingy to lend him any money either because, as Tõnisson put it, “there ain’t that much of it anyway”.
Since the restoration of Estonia’s independence, we have enjoyed the obvious advantages and rights that accompany sovereign statehood, but we have also been mindful of our obligations to the rest of the world, including our obligation to contribute to international security and stability. We are thus involved in a multifaceted process, from active participation in the diplomatic activities of multilateral organisations to the provision of development aid during humanitarian catastrophes and participation in military operations for crisis management. Our contribution will never be huge, but Estonia, as a state, cannot really evade any single obligation.
Because Estonia is a small state, it is often said that we participate in foreign missions only to show our flag and to score points with our big friends. These aspects should not be underestimated, but our principal reason for participating is that the success of the operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq is vitally important to us. If international organisations and coalitions were forced to admit their defeat, it would threaten our national security both directly and indirectly. Our moral and physical contribution might be fairly limited in absolute terms, but it is still possible that it will turn out that our absence or presence may play a critical role in one operation or another.
On the one hand, the need to keep conflict zones under control is a moral imperative: basic human solidarity, regardless of race or creed, keeps us from idly watching the suffering of people and entire nations; the more so as we have the means at our disposal to ease their pain. On the other hand, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions serve a practical purpose as well. We live in a globalised world where people, jobs, ideologies and money move from one place to another more freely and quickly than they used to. This means that an unsolved conflict cannot be contained at a local level for long. If we close our eyes and avoid the problems that need solving, they will soon appear on our doorstep – as an incoming stream of refugees, right-wing, left-wing or religious extremists or terrorist groups, through drugs, human or weapons trafficking or in some other form. Any one of these will undermine our economic and political security and will affect general public safety.
We have to be present in crisis zones
In recent years, the most significant and extensive foreign missions for the Estonian Defence Forces have been the NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, together with the operation in Iraq that is carried out under the auspices of an international coalition. In addition, some experts and communications officers have represented us in other crisis zones. The first significant EU-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina will probably be added to our mission list in the near future. Every area in crisis has its own history and background, yet it is clear that today each and every one of them needs the fullest attention and the presence of the international community.
So far, the Estonian government and parliament have considered it important to participate in the operations that play a significant role in safeguarding global security. Whether, how and to what extent we will continue is, of course, only up to us. However, I believe that if we were to pull out immediately, especially if the decision to do so were taken in order to achieve some domestic or party political objectives, we would stray from the path of wise statecraft. The solving of an extensive humanitarian or military crisis and the building of a properly functioning society are both time-consuming and expensive – that is the rule rather than the exception. Similarly, it is to be expected that the domestic public and even the media will eventually lose interest in conflicts in faraway places. But a state and its leaders must have a longer vision than that.
The following is an analysis of the three operations to which our defence forces have contributed most extensively. I want to make it clear that we have to be patient and we must honestly fulfil the obligations our state has taken upon itself as a member of the international community. At the same time, I understand that no foreign mission lasts forever and I hope that all our troops will return home alive and unharmed.
More than six years have passed since the beginning of NATO’s military operation in the former Yugoslavia, which was launched after Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Albanian community in Kosovo. Today, we are witnesses to a situation in which there is an uneasy peace in Kosovo, yet the economy and internal security of its breakaway Serbian province continue to be volatile, the different communities have not achieved reconciliation and thousands of refugees are still waiting for a chance to return to their homes.
The fragility of peace in the Balkan region was underscored by the riots that broke out last spring, during which tens of Serbian holy sites were desecrated. Although the reactions of the international peacekeepers back then can be criticised to a certain extent, there is no doubt that those incidents would have led to much more serious consequences without the presence of NATO forces, including Estonian forces.
Last week, the UN Security Council decided to take another step to solve this long and drawn-out conflict by announcing the opening of negotiations over Kosovo’s future status. As the starting positions of the Albanians and the Serbs differ radically, it is obvious that the negotiations will not be easy: the Serbs will hear nothing of Kosovo’s independence and are only willing to negotiate over the extent of its autonomy, whereas the Albanian majority in Kosovo will not settle for anything less than total independence.
The progress of the negotiations might upset the ever so delicate regional security balance in several ways. The referendum on independence that will be held in Montenegro next spring might raise the hopes of Albanians and force the Serbs into a more defensive position. If Kosovo moves closer to independence, this might inspire the Serbs in Bosnia and other ethnic and religious minorities in Macedonia, Croatia and other countries to come out with their own demands. The efforts of the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague to bring war criminals to justice will have an impact on the domestic politics of the Balkan countries and might even tilt public opinion towards more extreme nationalism. In addition, many analysts are alarmed by the signs that affluent Arab Wahhabi movements have recently started to provide rather generous financial support for both Slavic and Albanian Muslims in the Balkans to promote their religious and educational activity.
All the local communities realise that the continued presence of international peacekeeping forces is essential, while the desired solutions suggested by the communities differ drastically. The Albanians see the peacekeepers as a guarantee against the recurrence of the events of 1998-1999; the Serbs understand that NATO forces currently protect their churches and abbeys and offer a sense of security to those who want to return to their homes.
The escalation of the crisis after a possible NATO pullout from Kosovo would render pointless all the work that has been done to set up state institutions there. This could create a new wave of refugees and lead to a collapse of the economy and state institutions, which are still in an embryonic stage of development, but in the building of which much effort has been invested.
As a result of the military operation in Afghanistan that was launched at the end of 2001 by an international coalition, the Taleban regime – one of the most reactionary Islamic regimes in the world – was overthrown. The principal causes of the regime change in Afghanistan were the attacks perpetrated by the Al Qaeda terrorist network in the United States and the fact that the Taleban sheltered and supported Al Qaeda terrorists.
However, the Wahhabist extremist regime was not toppled in order to retaliate. The operation curbed significantly the capacity of Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups to carry out major attacks in the future and, more importantly, it created basic conditions for a dignified and democratic life for millions of people living in Afghanistan, in particular for those whom the Taleban regime had treated most brutally – that is women and the large Shia and Sufi communities.
After the military operation, the situation began to stabilise, largely thanks to the NATO-led ISAF mission. As a result, the institutions of democratic governance have strengthened and the first elections have been held.
Still, it will take a lot of time and money to democratise Afghanistan and to revitalise its economy; the more so as relations between the clans play an important role there and the whole country has been ravished by wars for several decades. Al Qaeda and the Taleban have been weakened significantly and their remaining members have been forced into the mountainous border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet they have not been wiped out completely. Several warlords and their military groups – but not all of them – have started to participate in the democratic political process. If the democratic process stalls, inter-clan and ethnic conflicts might erupt anew. The remnants of the Taleban regime are waiting for their chance to seize power again.
It would be problematic to claim that Afghanistan’s economy is a functioning one. Many farmers earn their living primarily – and some solely – by growing poppies, supplying the global opium industry with its raw material. Alternative sources of income are hard to come by and harder to maintain; these would probably have no chance at all, if it was not for the ‘stick and carrot’ policy of the international forces.
If NATO and its partners were to lose their patience and to pull out of Afghanistan’s reconstruction process, the first ones to suffer as a result would probably be the people who live in this land of severe natural conditions and complex history. Quite soon, however, we ourselves would reap the consequences of our irresponsible behaviour: when left on its own, Afghanistan’s most likely export products – opiates and terrorism – would still be targeted at the Western market.
The Iraq mission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and politically most sensitive among the foreign operations in which the Estonian Defence Forces participate. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the prime motive for ousting the regime of Saddam Hussein – the exposing and liquidation of weapons of mass destruction – was erroneous. However, the attempts to depict this dictator as an innocent victim are grossly misleading. Saddam’s regime started the Iran-Iraq War, which was one of the longest and bloodiest armed conflicts in the 20th century; it conquered Kuwait, a peaceful neighbouring country; it murdered in cold blood thousands of political dissidents and members of ethnic and religious groups, which the regime considered to be annoying.
The track record of Saddam’s regime demonstrates clearly that if he had stayed in power, he would have continued to pose a threat to regional peace and security. The UN’s economic sanctions and the permission to export oil only to obtain revenues for purchasing food and medicines lost their efficiency as punitive measures over the years. The greed of some Western politicians and concerns seriously exacerbated the erosion of sanctions. The question of whether political efforts to contain Saddam’s regime had failed by the time the last Gulf War began requires an in-depth, honest and in many respects critical analysis. However, regardless of the results of the analysis, it is clear that currently the international operation, the aim of which is to stabilise the situation, must continue.
In order to understand how delicate the domestic situation in Iraq is, we should take a quick look at the country’s history. Although Baghdad was the Islamic caliphate’s capital for more than half of a millennium during the Middle Ages, today’s Iraq is a relatively new country, in the northern part of which live Sunni Kurds, while the central and southern parts are populated by Arabs, most of whom are Shiites. Despite representing the majority of the people, the Shia community has never actually been in power in Iraq, unlike the Shiites in Iran. In the early years, Sunni caliphs ruled the caliphate; later, when the territory of today’s Iraq had become a peripheral border area of the Ottoman Empire, it was formally governed by Sunni sultans. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was under a British mandate, whose end brought the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq. The imported monarch Faisal, a son of the Sharif of Mecca, was, of course, a Sunni, like all the members of his court. The predominance of Sunnis continued even after the collapse of the monarchy and the rise to power of the Baath (‘Resurrection’) Party in the second half of the century. It should be clear from the above why the Sunni Arabs have not eagerly accepted the loss of their customary role of leadership in Iraq.
However, I must emphasise that, for example, during the Iran-Iraq War, most of the Shiite Arabs in Iraq remained loyal to their country and did not join their Persian fellow believers to fight Saddam’s Sunni regime, which admittedly took little interest in religious matters at the time. This raises hopes that the reconstruction efforts could unite the different communities around their country and its attributes. The holding of the first free elections and the constitutional process have given a slight boost to the fragile confidence in the prospect of a better future.
Like Kosovo and Afghanistan, Iraq is located in a problematic neighbourhood. At the moment, the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria are not regarded highly by the international community; the more so as they might be interested in prolonging the crisis in Iraq, which might prevent the democratic world from focussing on solving the problems that stem from Iraq’s neighbours.
If we were to finish the operation in Iraq prematurely, it would probably lead to an unpredictable civil war and further destabilisation of the entire region. The failure of the coalition to achieve its objectives in Iraq would give Iran and Syria a freer hand to defy the rest of the world. In addition, it is likely that an Iraq gripped by civil war would soon become a safe haven for international terrorism. It would be naive to hope that these developments would not affect our lives as well.
We must offer what is needed
When participating in foreign operations, we cannot follow the principle that our troops should only go to places where the risk to their lives and wellbeing is as small as possible or non-existent. First, there is no such thing as a safe peacekeeping mission. Second, our participation would be meaningful only if we were able to offer something that others really need, not if we give them useless stuff, leftovers from home.
Of course, in addition to military units, it is possible to contribute to conflict resolution efforts by providing financial and civilian resources. However, those who suggest that the Estonian Defence Forces should pull out of a international crisis zone for domestic political reasons and offer something else, something ‘abstract’, in exchange for our military contribution – while our capacity to provide development aid amounts to only a fraction of what is usually expected from a developed country – remind me of Tõnisson from Oskar Luts’s Suvi (Summer) who did not want to give his signature to Toots, but was too stingy to lend him any money either because, as Tõnisson put it, “there ain’t that much of it anyway”. The above does not mean that Estonia should not try to provide more non-military development aid. On the contrary, we must catch up with the rest of the developed world, of which we consider ourselves to be a part. Still, I must emphasise that participation in peacekeeping operations and development aid complement rather than compete with each other.
Finally, there is one more reason why we are truly interested in the success of international missions. Taking into account the processes that have threatened Estonia’s independence in the past and might do so again in the future, it is vital for us to know that if such a need arises, the Allies will stand by their promise to help us. No single Ally has turned our participation in peacekeeping missions into a precondition for assistance. Yet the failure of previous missions and the resulting international criticism or domestic public dissent might unduly complicate and prolong the decision-making processes. And by then it could be already too late to ask ourselves whether we did everything possible to be a good Ally.