Czechs head off to war, but where?

Anti-chemical unit from Liberec

The Czech Defence Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik confirmed on Thursday that the country's elite anti-chemical unit was being mobilised as part of the U.S.-led "war against terrorism." The 300-man unit, based in the northern town of Liberec, certainly has combat experience; it played an important role in the 1991 Gulf War. But there's still some confusion as to where the 300 soldiers are actually going - according to some reports they'll be deployed in either Pakistan or Uzbekistan, others say they're being sent to the United States. Mr Trvdik himself isn't being too helpful - he just says they'll be sent "thousands of kilometres" away from the Czech Republic. So where are they going? A question Rob Cameron put to Jiri Kominek, Prague correspondent of the leading defence publication Jane's Defence weekly.

"That's difficult to say I guess. If they were to deploy them in theatre, which is in or around Afghanistan, it would have to be Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Pakistan itself would be a fairly brash move, given the potentially unstable political situation there. As far as deploying them in the United States - which is where the bulk of [biological attacks] have occurred in the recent past, that really wouldn't make much sense because the attacks are really occurring in the form of letters sent, scattered throughout the continental U.S."

Exactly, what could 300 soldiers do to combat that? Flying from New York to Los Angeles to Texas trying to hunt down bio-chemical terrorists...

"Trying to hunt down a mad mailman..."

Presumably most large armies - and the United States has a larger army than most - do have their own anti-chemical units. Is the Czech anti-chemical unit really that special?

"It is, yes. It's proven itself time and time again, during the Gulf War in 1991, technologically and experience-wise they're far ahead of anything the U.S. has right now. The Americans themselves have admitted that."

Assuming that this Czech anti-chemical unit is actually deployed in theatre as you say, what would their day-to-day work consist of?

"Taking measurements, that's basically what it is. Taking measurements, monitoring the air, monitoring soil samples, that type of thing. It's actually very dull work."

You say the Americans do really need a crack anti-chemical unit. Does that suggest this is more than just a symbolic move, sending the Czechs to war?

"It would depend on whether the enemy - in this case the Taleban - would actually biological weapons in the field. The war there is so scattered, there is no single front, so it would be difficult to deploy such weapons. And the United States has already indicated along with Great Britain that there's no massive invasion being planned, this isn't going to be a D-Day."

So there is a strong symbolic aspect in getting the Czechs actively involved in Operation Enduring Freedom?

"Absolutely. There's an election coming up [in the Czech Republic], so the Zeman government has to prove to Czech voters that it's a virile and salubrious government, willing to battle international terrorism, take it on at its roots. And also to quieten criticism that Czechs are not doing their share, that they're not being a reliable ally, not being a reliable partner."