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2021.08.19 08:00

‘We all think that death will pass us by.’ The cost of Lithuania's war in Afghanistan

Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2021.08.19 08:00

With Kabul falling to the Taliban, what remains of Lithuania’s footprint in Afghanistan and why was the Baltic nation there in the first place?

On May 22, 2008, Arūnas Jarmalavičius watched a crowd of Afghans erupt into riot. Standing in his post at the Lithuanian base in Chaghcharan, the capital of Ghor province, he was struck by a bullet, becoming the first and only Lithuanian soldier to be killed during the country’s mission in Afghanistan.

“I met the soldier who stood alongside him when he [Arūnas] died. We met in a Lidl [supermarket], looked at each other and started crying,” Danguolė Jarmalavičienė, the killed soldier’s widow, said in her hometown of Alytus in southern Lithuania.

She hadn’t seen Arūnas’ former comrade for 13 years. The serviceman, according to Jarmalavičienė, was among several soldiers who asked to return back to Lithuania before the end of their six-month rotation. Shortly after, he left the military altogether, she said.

“We all think that [death] will pass us by, but somewhere deep down, you know that it’s [a possibility],” said Jarmalavičienė. “It’s painful for me as a wife, as a woman, but it is also our choice. I chose a husband who is a soldier, I knew [what could happen].”

Arūnas was killed only several weeks after arriving in Chaghcharan. During their nightly chats, “he used to say that even though he hadn’t been here long, he now understood how well off we were” in comparison to life in Afghanistan, said Jarmalavičienė.

Kabul fell on August 15, two decades after the US-led intervention began. Asked whether her late husband’s contribution was worth it, she nodded: “I think that yes. We are still together with allies, we need to help others because of solidarity and common defence."

NATO in Baltics via Afghanistan

The first Lithuanian troops arrived in Ghor province on June 30, 2005. During the height of the eight-year mission in the region, Lithuania put forth one of the largest contributions to Afghanistan from among the allies, according to a 2011 study at Vytautas Magnus University (VDU).

The list of initiatives implemented in Ghor includes 22 schools, an orphanage, hydroelectric dams and a reconstructed hospital. Elsewhere, millions were spent on agricultural, infrastructure, as well as training programmes.

But on a regional scale, it proved to be a hollow achievement in the face of continuing poverty and security threats.

“The Lithuanians, they didn't have much money,” said Afghan MP Razia Radmehr, a female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, just days before the capital fell to the Taliban. Speaking to a local journalist, she said she was young when the Lithuanian troops controlled the area and did not remember much, adding that their interventions were small-scale.

The country’s main goals, according to several analysts, were primarily aimed at bringing its own security to the international agenda.

“The idea of exchange remains dominant – Lithuania seeks active deployment on its territory from the Western allies [...] to deter Russia and, in exchange, it offers to take part in military missions that are importance for its allies,” Eglė Murauskaitė, a Lithuanian political scientist and researcher, told Nara media platform in Lithuania.

“At the same time, the legitimacy of the allies’ missions is not questioned,” she said, adding that civilian investments remained “minimal”.

Even before the ill-fated Iraq invasion, the Baltic states made headlines in 2003 when the then French president blasted Eastern Europe’s support for the operation as a missed “opportunity to keep quiet”.

Unabating support for US and NATO initiatives has also made the Baltic states targets of Chinese and Russian propaganda.

Yet, especially after the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the Baltics and Eastern Europe have grown to see the US as their main security guarantor.

Joining the mission in Afghanistan was part of a series of involvements in foreign conflicts, largely unquestioned by the public. Militarily, these missions helped its armed forces prepare and train, Lithuanian officers and defence officials say.

Politically, the main objective was to become a trusted NATO ally, according to Margarita Šešelgytė, director of Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science who has previously taught at Baltic and Lithuanian military academies.

Aiming to show that Lithuania was not only “a consumer of security, but also a supplier”, the country took on “a huge commitment” by leading the provincial reconstruction mission, according to Šešelgytė.

Meanwhile, democratisation of Afghanistan was secondary to the military aims. “If judging [only] our goals" to increase NATO presence in the Baltics, "we have achieved them", she said.

‘It’s our way out’

During the course of the Lithuanian mission, dozens of translators and interpreters helped the troops. With province after province folding to the Taliban, they too came under threat.

Speaking from an undisclosed location in Kabul via WhatsApp on August 17, one translator said that delays in getting them evacuated to Lithuania would cost lives.

“Delaying the process will endanger our lives more,” the man told LRT.lt. “It seems that the process is not speeding up [and we] still don’t know when and how [we] will be taken out.”

Lithuania’s officials, it seems, were caught off guard, much as the rest of the world, by the rapid fall of the Afghan capital.

“Possibilities for evacuating them [to Lithuania] are getting slimmer, but it is still possible," Deputy Defence Minister Margiris Abukevičius said on Monday. Previously, the prime minister said taking care of Afghan civilians who assisted Lithuanian troops was “a matter of honour for the state”.

However, amid a migration crisis fostered by the Belarusian regime and subsequent anti-migrant protests, public sentiment in Lithuania may be less than welcoming to refugees.

Speaking off the record, Lithuanian defence officials admit that the society’s moods may have been a reason preventing a more public advocacy for the threatened Afghan translators.

‘We did what we could’

“We received a very [positive] response from the allies and [improved] security in our country,” said Juozas Olekas, a former Lithuanian defence minister. He served in 2006, shortly after the start of the mission, and in 2013 during its conclusion. During the operation in Ghor, Olekas said Lithuanian troops gained the trust of the locals, as there were relatively few incidents. The Lithuanian presence also enabled “more democratic principles” to emerge in the region, while developing infrastructure, healthcare, women’s rights and basic literacy among children.

He admitted that the Afghanistan mission helped the Baltics draw NATO’s attention to themselves – “we also received support in Lithuania, the forward [EFP] battalion, NATO integration HQ.”

With Chaghcharan now in the hands of the Taliban, Lithuania’s contribution may seem to have been in vain. “Of course our wishes were bigger, [...] we did what we could.”

Lives revolving around the battalion’

The death of Arūnas in 2008 plunged his family into despair. “The husband, behind whom you felt like behind a wall, was no more,” said Jarmalavičienė.

During the next few months, which she said were a haze, the military offered her to enroll in the service, provided psychologists and rehabilitation. After losing her accountant job due to a financial crisis, the money and structured routine provided by the military helped her get through the grief.

Passing basic training, she said she was surrounded by constant support. Nevertheless, walking through the same corridors as her late husband, being surrounded by the same men and women – his friends – contributed to continuing breakdowns.

“There were people who would feel you. They would see that I was unwell, say, let’s go, we go out into the field, I would cry, and then continue to work.”

The family’s life, she said, had always revolved around the military unit stationed in Alytus, a town of some 50,000 people in southern Lithuania. She met her future husband at the barracks when she briefly worked as a cook in the early 1990s; she also found out the news about his death while attending an event there.

But for others, memories are fading. Justas, Arūnas’ son, says he can no longer remember his father, only the things that he once discussed out loud – “I remember words, not images.”

“I would like to go to Afghanistan one day,” says Justas. “Because of my father of course, but also to meet the people that many consider as enemies.”

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