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Lord Astor of Hever: Our brave and inspiring Danish and Estonian allies are the unsung heroes of Helmand

Picture 5 Lord Astor of Hever is a Conservative spokesman on defence and foreign affairs in the House of Lords.

Earlier this year I visited Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, the largest overseas British military base built since the Second World War.  I heard from our troops first hand about the importance of Danish and Estonian soldiers fighting alongside our forces to secure Afghanistan.  And as we reflect on the valour and sacrifice of our own men and women in uniform, it is important to consider the efforts of these brave allies as well.

Denmark entered the Afghan conflict as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2002.  Though initially sending engineers and Special Forces troops, there are now approximately 750 Danish troops participating in a variety of missions.  Most troops are infantrymen fighting in Helmand province.  Danish staff officers also serve in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Headquarters, and there are Danish support elements in Kabul and Kandahar.

Foreign Policy magazine reported last year that, concerning troop contributions and casualties, Denmark has the highest percentage of all countries when factoring population size.  Of the 30 Danish casualties in Afghanistan, almost all are the result of hostile enemy fire or IEDs in Helmand Province.

In addition to infantrymen in Helmand, Danish doctors routinely serve in the field hospital at Camp Bastion where Coalition forces and Afghan civilians receive life-saving care.  During the busiest three-month period in the hospital’s history, Danish medical troops were in command.  They received more than 2,100 patients in the A&E department, spent 1,105 hours at the operating tables, and performed 1,112 operations.

Danish civilians and development experts also serve in the Lithuanian-led PRT Chaghcharan.  Since 2002, Denmark has provided more than £122 million to Afghanistan in development assistance.  In 2008, Denmark published a comprehensive strategy similar to General McChrystal’s current ISAF Commanders Guidance, advocating an increase in Afghan government, education, and military capability.

Estonia’s contribution is equally inspiring.  Deployed to Afghanistan since the beginning of OEF in 2002, Estonian troops now patrol in Helmand Province with 160 infantry soldiers under British command.  During the recent Afghan elections, Estonia nearly doubled its troop contribution to 300 troops, making them the highest contributor per capita in the ISAF mission during this critical time. 

According to the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, six soldiers have been killed since 2002 and over 40 have been wounded (although there has in fact been a seventh casualty in the last ten days). As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this year, Estonia’s casualties as a proportion of its population are nearly twice those of the US.

Estonia also emphasizes a comprehensive approach to tackling problems in Afghanistan.  Supporting the European Union Police (EUPOL) mission, Estonia is sending policemen to Helmand in the beginning of next year.  Additionally, Estonia has prioritised the improvement of healthcare for Afghans in Helmand Province.  To this end, Estonia has sent medical advisers to Helmand, participated in numerous aid projects (such as establishing a hospital ambulance program and providing electricity to hospitals), and conducted training in Estonia for Afghan healthcare workers.

As our Government debates British participation in the Afghan conflict, it is important to remember the great sacrifices made by our troops and those of other nations.  As I said in the House of Lords last month, these sacrifices are not cause for uncertainty in our mission, but rather encouragement for stronger leadership and greater clarity of focus.  During a recent address to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly, current NATO Secretary General and former Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen said:

“The costs of this operation are high. But the costs of walking away would be far, far higher. And that is why we have to stay the course and build on the considerable progress we have made so far.” 

Thankfully we are not alone in "staying the course".  Our Danish and Estonian allies set an inspiring example for all of NATO.

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