NATO’s silent side

  • 2011-05-11
  • Interview by Matthew Garrick

At first glance, Vilnius local Tomas Urbonas does not resemble the stereotypical image of a civilian veteran from the ongoing war in Afghanistan. His calm manner, trim beard and glasses reflect the look of an academic, or a chess champion, far removed from somebody who was stationed to work alongside Lithuanian troops and who watched, on a daily basis, human life struggling in one of the frailest societies on earth. On two separate occasions. A senior employee at the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense since 1998, Urbonas was chosen as a specialist of international relations (having acquired both a bachelors and a masters degree in the field) to spend one year living in the slummy Afghan province of Ghowr, as part of a 2007 Lithuanian civilian mission.

Here his life became entrenched with the tasks of supporting local authorities expand sectors such as government and education, implementing ideas such as adult literature courses, and helping train police officers. He found himself in the role of listener to local communities, to hear and discuss their needs, and assist them with training in order to better their chances in gaining employment, and thus helping themselves in constructing democracy within a harsh world. Working by the side of the International Security Assistance Forces, he was aiding in the reshaping of a nation plagued by strife. Then, just three years after returning home, in 2010, Urbonas was delegated by the Lithuanian government to work as a NATO representative in the center of the country’s notorious capital, Kabul, for eight months. He returned safely in February this year, with a trove of stories and perspectives on life in war, and shares them with The Baltic Times.

At the end of the day, as the old saying goes, ‘War is Hell.’ So what about enjoying yourself. What did you do in Kabul for a good time?

Well, we had only one day off per week, Fridays. On Friday we were just trying to get out, just to go outside. Sometimes, with a few friends, we went to ordinary Afghan restaurants, just to taste their own food. They were friendly, trying to talk to us in English. The local food was okay. It’s limited pretty much to meat and rice. In rural areas, if you have meat, you’re lucky. It’s very expensive. Though in Kabul, if you look around, you can find what you want. The shops have vegetables, meat… and the streets are filled with Toyotas. Morning and night, traffic jams with hundreds of Toyotas. Overall, the quality of leisure is quite low. There are a few restaurants, museums, and major sightseeing spots… otherwise, it’s very restricted. It was always interesting talking to the locals, the youth. Kabul youth are very unhappy they have no nightclubs. They would like to see more nightlife in the city. What they are doing is meeting at people’s houses and smoking water pipes. But it is not enough for them. In bigger Afghan cities like Kabul, the youth are very progressive.

Being in Afghanistan on a civilian basis, ‘helping to rebuild,’ so to say, were you able to objectively witness signs of society stabilizing? Was there any type of so-called ‘democracy’?

If you look at the comparison of before, in how many schools there are now in Afghanistan, and how many school pupils are today attending them, including girls, the numbers are actually very optimistic. Some women actually risk their lives in order to become leaders or active participants in Afghan society, which according to Western standards is not a civil one, especially in rural areas. But they do; some risk their lives. This is where I think we were in a position to provide necessary, but not intrusive, support for them, in order for women to actually be able to increase their role in society. I guess in turn this will help educate their society, and they will receive more rights to participate more actively within it. Investment into education by nations and by international communities is quite substantial, and it’s a pity the security situation sometimes impedes this process. But if you look at the statistics, we have progress here, and we need to keep helping, even though we have a lot of combat operations in some of these areas.

As a first-hand witness of Lithuania’s role in the war, how do you think they were faring?

Well, the province where we were in 2007, where the Lithuanian army was, is poor, even looking at Afghan standards. The reason being was there were no real roads, and a poor practice of agriculture. Most of the families of the locals were just able to afford enough to eat, but of course we wanted them to be able to generate some money for themselves. So they need roads there. I think the Lithuanian presence there, even though we were not in a position to pour a lot of money into development, also facilitated that other actors, like Japan, came to the province. This would never have been happening if we hadn’t been there. In some of the other provinces, there were no security forces. No reconstruction teams. I think our efforts have been important in widening an international presence in Ghowr. Many, many countries came there because we were there and able to support them in terms of security and accommodation. So, I think this is one of the ways that you can look at Lithuania’s presence there.

How were the reactions of Afghani civilians to the Lithuanian presence in their province?

In 2007, we were just driving and taking walks in this province’s city center without problems. The security situation deteriorated last year around autumn, I think inspired by some local warlord, but from my perspective that was a very short-term influence. You had to be very careful to actually assess what kind of attitude they had toward us, because in a province like Ghowr, where most of the people were uneducated, some local Mullah or other leader could change the majority’s views in just an instant.

Could you sense the general mood of the soldiers while you were there?

Well, I saw at least three rotations, because civilians work there longer. Civilians work for one year, while the military were there for just six months. But I think, in most of the cases, they militarily knew their tasks. Of course, Lithuania had the experience of being there six years already. They were pretty well informed. Probably what was new for them, the soldiers, was they had to do a lot more civilian type activities than military fighting, so that was something they had to rethink within themselves. They had to learn to work with civilians, and we had to learn to work together. In a province like Ghowr, it was very important that we had the right understanding of what the province needed. In many cases what it needed was our neutrality, which we were pretty good at, being international forces. We had to ensure we were neutral. Other than that, most of the Lithuanian forces had had experience in the Balkans, so I think they were quite alright. That’s their service, their mission: six months. On the one hand it’s long term, but on the other, it’s bearable. They had a chance to communicate to their families via the Internet.

How close were you and the troops at any time to actual bloodshed?

We had a couple of incidents. One of them, in 2008 [when Lithuanian soldier Sgt. Arunas Jarmalavicius was killed in an attack at Ghowr PRT camp, on May 22], there was a demonstration there, and then youngsters attacked the camp. One soldier died. That was of course very sad, but other than that, we had no victims in Ghowr province. We actually traveled quite easily throughout these years, in terms of traveling throughout the province.

Did you ever get the feeling the soldiers had wished they were deeper into the action, the fighting?

No. I didn’t witness any such striving for a fight. For them they had to do more security and civilian-like tasks. Patrolling was something they were doing in the Balkans. They were pretty comfortable where we were in that province. The local population were quite friendly, in terms of what we were hearing from the rest of the country. Even in provinces around us, there were ‘accidents’ happening. Where we were, we had a pretty good relationship with the locals. It varied, though, in different villages.

During your trips to Afghanistan, what did your daily tasks consist of?

Our main effort there, as NATO senior civilian representatives, was to help the locals redevelop their country. We were in touch with the NATO secretary general [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] most days, reporting to him in Brussels. We had a lot of meetings with the local population, not just to discuss what we were ready to offer, but also to talk with them to see what they actually needed. Every time we began a project, we wanted the locals to be there. Then we were able to train them to be able to sustain some particular project, be it governmental building, or maintaining a power generator, or riding a motor bike in the police force. That wasn’t easy. We were trying to identify critical areas where they needed support, so they could start growing the muscle, so to say, and start looking after any particular areas by themselves. We were fighting to find qualified people, educated people who could be trained, because it is very hard to train uneducated people. Educated people in the region were trying to escape, and head to the bigger Afghan cities such as Herat, which bordered our province, or to Kabul, so it was very, very hard to maintain qualified personnel. That had a negative influence on the public administration’s performance in the province, and it wasn’t a good factor in terms of population support increase.

You came from an academic background, completing university studies in both Lithuania and the UK. Psychologically, how was it as an educated civilian being thrown into a war zone?

As a part of the training in Lithuania, we were taught together with the Lithuanian military. We were trained in culture, which was relevant to everybody. We had these trainings before we left, also from NATO. Nevertheless, when I went there it took some time for me to try and understand what was happening. I felt safe, though, I felt quite alright. I knew that from time to time there would be a few incidents, but other than that I felt quite okay. We were even able to go shopping and things like that.

Did the whole experience make you reappraise Lithuanian independence, or look at it in any different kind of way?

What was interesting and important to me was that we were there on our own, to help somebody, and to make our own decisions together with our Afghan partners to see how we could support them. It’s nice to be in a position to make some decisions. But, in terms of independence, in theory or dreaming, I was just happy we were there, and we were there because we were an independent country, a member of NATO, and we contributed our troops to that mission. Not just contributed, but also played a very important role in leading a construction team. We were quite relevant in that province. If you look at our army representation there, it was a very rational number in terms of how many troops we had, about 150 Lithuanians.

And what happens now? What are the future objectives for the country’s forces in Afghanistan?

The current governor of the province visited Lithuania, just before Easter, and he said what they expect from us was to focus on how to improve the lives of normal Afghan people. In Afghanistan, from my perspective, they should mainly focus on aiding their freedom of movement, which comes down to roads, roads, roads. Connections. In our province, 90 percent of the population were involved in agriculture, so this is how you would make the sector more effective. Giving training, and good quality seeds, things like that. If you focus there, and you allow people to generate their own money, then they will feel pretty good about what they have. And security is very important also.

Did it ever feel as if international forces were invading Afghanistan?

I look at our mission there as more of a peacekeeping, stabilization mission, rather than a NATO invasion. I look at it this way: people were completely tired of thirty years of conflict and wars. If you talked with ordinary Muslims not engaged in a more radical way of practicing it, what they were saying was that they want security, they want to let their children go to school, they want health care and they want to be able to generate some income.

Is there anything in particular that you really missed about Lithuania while you were there? How did you view Lithuanian society from over there?

Sure. Most of the people who come back, being military or civilian, say we shouldn’t complain about the problems we have here. It was a very eye-opening experience for many of us there. Actually, I believe I went there for the sake of experiencing a new environment. Here in Lithuania I was working with international relations, so it was always a topic of my interest. I just wanted to make my own experience, and go and do something. In that environment though, you could experience frustration in what you wanted to achieve and what you could achieve. You had to deal with that, and figure the best ways to make your activities most effective.

What do you think of Lithuanian public reaction to the country’s involvement in Afghanistan?

It is important how they, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, and the news media here in Lithuania, portray what Lithuanians do there. I think we need to use Afghanistan for our public here in Lithuania, to engage them and show them the necessity to be a part (this will sound very sophisticated) of the world. Take a more active position in it. We are still struggling with the mentality we had before. First of all, we were always part of some other nation, for decades, and we are now in the process of building our own nation, and identity, and interest. I think Afghanistan became one of the areas where we had a lot of criticism from the public, but this was happening all around the world. At the same time, I think our population engages in understanding what kind of disasters and misfortunes and hard lives people lead in some other countries, where if even a small contribution of ours can make them at least feel more comfortable, I think that’s good enough.

Do you think you would ever go back?

It is not in my plans right now. Maybe to some other country. But, actually, this was very interesting and engaging. You feel very lucky when you consider yourself as actually helping, and seeing some results of your help to other people who are in need.

Fantastic. Good luck on all your peacekeeping endeavours down the road.