Czechs in Afghanistan, Pt. XI: On the concrete island that the army calls home


For the last month we have focused on the humanitarian side of Czech activities in war-torn Afghanistan; today we move closer to the war itself. There are more than 500 Czech soldiers in the country as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and many of them are serving at Kabul International Airport, where Radio Prague’s reporter Christian Falvey went to find out more about their mission and their day-to-day lives.

The welcoming party that greets your arrival among the other group of Czechs in Afghanistan is a far cry from the two-handed handshakes in green courtyards in Mazar-i-Sharif, where we have spent the last several weeks.

“Come closer please... come closer, or get away from the gate... [yells]... Some people just don’t understand. Good afternoon...”

Czech unit at the NATO base at Kabul International Airport | Photo: Czech Army
This is Abbey Gate, the main entrance to the military base at Kabul International Airport, where 72 soldiers of the 3rd contingent of the Czech Army are stationed in some seven units. I am one of the luckier individuals who approach the gate every few minutes, some are lone bearded men pushing carts or women in burqas with children, whose would-be business at the gate you never discover, as they generally turn around when they are yelled at enough. But if you can communicate with them, then the teen-aged Belgian soldiers minding the entrance are amiable enough.

Have you had any problems here?

“Well, so far so good. It’s just that some people don’t understand, and so they just stand there blocking the whole gate so nobody can pass, and that makes problems.”

“If somebody blocks the gate then our military convoys have to wait to drive in, and when they stand still they are a target.”

After a labyrinth of concrete and razor wire alleys and your full-body scan comes the world of the army base – a world as unlike Afghanistan or any other place as you could possibly imagine. Only sandstorms and the tops of mountains penetrate what is otherwise a uniform environment so sterile that it could be anywhere, where almost everything looks like it has been made out of big cargo containers. And that is what the Czech soldiers call their home and office for six-month terms. Chief of Staff of the Czech contingent is Captain Miroslav Folvarský, who was rotated here from Iraq.

“I think there isn’t a very big difference, just that in Iraq we worked in the field more and here we spend more time on the base. In Iraq we had a field hospital, and so that work involved something else altogether; the local people came to the base for medical treatment. Here it is about providing assistance for other contingents. Every deployment is different.

Czechs are not fighting in Afghanistan – though security units in Logar province and a small accompaniment of military police are prepared to do so to protect the rest of the contingent. At the airport itself there are Czech air-traffic controllers handling the many hundreds of flights in and out of Kabul daily, meteorologists providing round-the-clock service for air and ground forces and training for their Afghan counterparts, and the National Support Element which provides logistical support for the Czech soldiers throughout the country and for other allied forces when needed. Lieutenant Colonel Josef Šimůnek is the commanding officer of the Czech contingent at the airport and feels comfortable with the work of his men and women in the multinational mission.

“The way I see it, as a soldier, is that our participation here is very highly valued by all of our partners from all of the Alliance countries. The way the Czech soldiers work in cooperation with our partners on the base here is very highly valued. From what I have been told, this positive perception and good assessment comes not only from the alliance but also from the civilians, particularly the importance of the activities of the Logar units which focus on implementing civilian projects in the province. So I definitely think that the Czech army has a place of its own here, and is it is very important to us, and to me of course, to show that we are able to stand side by side with our alliance partners.”

Another one of the main objectives of the Kabul airport contingent is training Afghan helicopter pilots and technicians, and quite interestingly, it is a job that Czechs were handpicked to fulfil. Captain Folvarský again:

“The US side asked the Czech army to send more people to teach the Afghan soldiers how to maintain the Russian-made Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, because the Afghan army is still using this type. Then everyone realised that the Czech technicians and soldiers were still able to maintenance these, say, old-fashioned helicopters, because they know them very well. And Czech people are able to improvise. We do not wait for help, we try to repair things immediately.

In a shady spot between containers and trucks and furnished with dart boards and a classic signpost showing the distance to various locations in the Czech Republic, I found two Moravian helicopter technicians who told me about their work.

What are your names?


“Petr. But it is confidential, don’t tell any women.”

And you both do the same job?

“I’m an electrician.”

“I work on radio, avionics and navigation systems.”

And is the end goal of your work to create an Afghan helicopter force that is capable of piloting and repairing its own equipment.

“The Afghan air force is already built, they have many helicopters. But our purpose is to teach them our system of maintenance and how to work on them. Because we have the same types of helicopters, so somebody decided that we would be able to teach them our system.”

Their experience must be very different from your own experience when they begin training with you.

“Yeah, compared to the Czech Republic, these people are usually a little bit older than the Afghan ground forces. They can remember the Russian system also, and many of the pilots used to fly under the Russian system, when Russia occupied Afghanistan, so many of them are still good pilots I think.”

So they actually have combat experience.

“Some of them used to, and have combat experience now, and some of them are learning gradually.”

And do you have combat experience?

“Me? Not at all [laughs]. No, because I’m in the air force and as you know the Czech air force is not usually involved in any fighting, usually the air force is in the background.”

So you have some things that you can learn from them as well I suppose?

“Not much, because the people still want more and more information about our [technical] branch. As you know, some of the avionics have been upgraded, and there are some digital techniques, they want more information on how to work with computers and so on.”

And so how do you like Afghanistan?

“I can’t really say that I really like Afghanistan, before I came here I was a bit scared, but fortunately when I met the Afghans, they were fine people; I can say they are fine people, especially the technicians, always joking and laughing. They accept any kind of humour you offer them, they don’t refuse a laugh.

So your relations with them are good.

“I think so, yeah.”

Photo: author
But the relationships between Czechs and Afghans are confined to soldierly interaction at the airport base in Kabul. Most of the personnel rarely leave the base under any circumstances. In their six-month deployment they will hardly see a single turbaned street merchant, mullah, woman or even Taliban, nor anyone else but Afghan government fighters, technicians and administrators. It is, as mentioned earlier, a world away from Afghanistan itself, and Lieutenant Colonel Šimůnek thinks a long while before telling me whether or not he feels himself and his men to be “at war”.

“It’s hard to say whether I would call this a war or not. The security situation here certainly isn’t easy. In the time that we have been here we have only seen one rocket attack on the base. Nonetheless, in Kabul, which is only a few kilometres from here, there are reports of IEDs found every day, attacks on governmental offices here in Kabul very often... So it sounds somehow pretentious to say ‘this is war’ in the classic sense that we know from films and television, where soldiers are shooting at each other with machine guns, but I certainly can say that we are working in a war zone.”