With just days remaining until NATO assumes control of the 29-nation International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Latvian Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis last week paid a visit to Kabul to assess how his country's eight-person medical team is faring. RFE/RL traveled to the Afghan capital with Kristovskis.
Kabul, 4 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Irita Kronite is one of eight Latvian medics currently serving in the International Security Assistance Force in the Afghan capital Kabul.
Medical care is a traditional strength of Latvia's army, and Kronite says high-quality equipment and medicines have allowed her team to provide timely medical aid to Afghans and foreigners alike. Still, she says, the work hasn't been easy.
"The most difficult moments were those when Norwegians with gunshot wounds were brought to the hospital, and when three local people who had stepped on a mine were flown in by helicopter. But it was most painful to see children suffering," Kronite said.
The four women and four men making up the Latvian medical team have just a few weeks to go before the end of their six-month term with ISAF. Despite the rigorous work -- and the difficulty of dealing with shabby and chronically underequipped Afghan hospitals -- the medics say they have enjoyed a warm reception from Afghan citizens and fellow ISAF soldiers.
"I feel at home here, together with the Dutch troops," Warrant Officer Andris Lapsa said. "You also see Germans and Spaniards here. There aren't so many of us; we know each other by name. All the people are friendly, and it's really satisfying to serve here."
Once Kronite and Lapsa and the rest of the medical team head back to Latvia, they will be replaced by a new eight-member group chosen in a special draft.
Latvian Defense Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis last week visited the medics during a trip to Kabul. He said the work of the team and of Latvia's armed forces overall shows the country is capable of participating in international missions.
"Latvian troops have shown their best during this mission. We are hearing good words, and that means that the Latvian armed forces are developing and are able to take part in international missions. Latvian soldiers can comport themselves in such a manner that the Latvian flag can, for certain, fly together with the flags of other countries," Kristovskis said.
The continued ISAF security operation in Kabul may prove an especially long and difficult mission. The multinational force, originally run under the auspices of the United Nations, has been on the ground in the Afghan capital since the beginning of 2002, and now includes 5,600 troops from 29 nations. But as ISAF spokesman Thomas Lobbering admits, the Afghan capital is still far from safe or stable, and the situation in the regions is far worse.
All the same, Lobbering says, the interim government of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai should be credited for its efforts to establish security throughout the country.
"Hamid Karzai is the president of Afghanistan -- full stop. It doesn't mean that everything is OK. It means that it is not true to speak about 'Kabulistan' or to speak about the supposed fact that President Karzai is just a mayor of Kabul. This is not true," Lobbering says.
Lobbering's statement was echoed by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim. Following a meeting with Kristovskis, Fahim said the process of rebuilding the devastated country from scratch is not easily done.
"Afghanistan has encountered catastrophic losses in every field during the last 20 years. The country has suffered both economically and militarily. It has seen the worst, and now we have to start everything anew," Fahim said.
NATO is due to assume oversight control of ISAF on 11 August. Canada will be the first country to command the force under the NATO umbrella.