A parliament delegation meets with Czech troops in Afghanistan ahead of crucial vote on boosting Czech military presence in the country

Photo: www.army.cz

A delegation of Parliament’s Foreign and Defense Committee left for Afghanistan on Sunday ahead of a decisive vote on reinforcing the country’s foreign missions. They will be meeting with troops serving in the country’s provincial reconstruction team in southern Logar and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in order to ascertain how badly the proposed reinforcements are needed.

On Wednesday the lower house of Parliament is to vote on boosting the country’s military presence in a number of hotspots – primarily Afghanistan and Kosovo but in lesser numbers also Congo. Under the plan, close to 1,400 Czech soldiers would serve abroad next year – the highest number ever in the country’s modern history. The military claims that the plan to almost double its troops in Afghanistan stems from the need to improve the safety of those already there and the government has stressed that the country must fulfill its obligations within NATO, but their arguments have so far fallen on deaf ears: the opposition Social Democrats and Communists remain strongly opposed to the plan. Although the Social Democrats originally voted to send troops to Afghanistan, now they feel that the military operations in the country have not gone as expected and are only fuelling tension. Moreover even coalition deputies have their doubts. Education Minister Ondřej Liška of the Green Party says that it may be time to shift the focus in Afghanistan.

“I believe that in the case of Operation Enduring Freedom we have stretched our resources to the limit and moreover the mission itself has proved to be rather problematic. So I would suggest the government should consider withdrawing from Operation Enduring Freedom by the end of 2009 and instead focus on projects such as Opium for Medicine, to give opium production in the country legitimacy and train police officers to help maintain law and order. That is how a country the size of the Czech Republic can best help Afghanistan.”

Despite the lack of support, the Defense Ministry is going ahead with preparations and hoping that a face-to-face meeting with Czech soldiers in Afghanistan will convince more MPs to back the ministry’s plans. A no vote could seriously disrupt not just the plans of the Czech military but those of its allies. Defense Ministry spokesman Andrej Čírtek says that in such a case the military would have to resolve the situation in a fairly short time.

“Under the Czech Constitution the government alone can decide to maintain Czech forces abroad for a period of two months. This would give us extra time to deal with the problem at various levels. But we really hope that things will not come to that. Such a move would be unprecedented in the country’s modern history and things like this only very rarely happen in the other NATO member states.”

If Parliament approves the reinforcement plan, the number of Czech soldiers serving in Afghanistan next year could rise from the present 414 to 745 with a 100 member anti-terrorist force fighting the Taliban within Operation Enduring Freedom. The country’s presence in Iraq would be substantially reduced, and around 550 soldiers would serve in Kosovo. However given the present degree of uncertainty – and the fact that neither the coalition nor the opposition currently have a majority in the lower house – the numbers could be significantly scaled down.