NATO’s Afghanistan mission: longest deployment in Czech Army history ends

The last 12 Czech soldiers stationed in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission to fight the Taliban returned home on Sunday afternoon, thus bringing to an end the longest operational deployment in Czech Army history. In total, some 11,500 Czech soldiers took part in the mission, some repeatedly, while 14 of their comrades-in-arms died in the line of duty.

NATO announced in April that the alliance would pull out of Afghanistan the symbolic date of September 11 – twenty years to the day since the terror attacks took out New York’s iconic World Trade Towers, killing thousands and leading to the United States to declare a “war on terror”.

Photo: Michal Voska,  Czech Army

The US had determined that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network were responsible for the “9/11” attacks. The following day, for the first time in history, the NATO alliance invoked its mutual defence clause, according to which an attack on one member is as an attack on all.

The Czech Republic sent its first soldiers to the NATO mission in Afghanistan in 2002. The first served in field hospitals, followed by special units trained in combatting chemical and biological weapons, and then surgical and reconstruction teams. There were also soldiers on patrol, protecting bases and training Afghan troops, as well as helicopter pilots and other specialists.

Fourteen Czech soldiers were killed during the NATO mission. The first casualty came in 2007. The worst attack, in 2014, claimed five lives. Three others were killed by a suicide bomber in 2018.

Czech unit at the NATO base at Kabul International Airport | Photo: Czech Army

A ceremony honouring their memory and the service of their comrades, which included a flyover by fighter jets, was held on Wednesday at the National Monument on Prague’s Vítkov Hill. Among those in attendance was Jakub Havel, a member of Pardubice’s 14th Logistics Support Regiment, who lost a friend in Afghanistan.

“You go there knowing the danger, you are counting on it, but in secret your soul wants to believe it will turn out well, that you will return home in peace”.

A number of Czech politicians have spoken out against NATO’s departure from Afghanistan, including President Miloš Zeman, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek. At Wednesday’s ceremony, Minister of Defence Lubomír Metnar told Czech Television that the government respected the decision to pull out, but believed it was premature.

Aleš Opata | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Český rozhlas

“For us, it is the next step. My personal opinion – and not only mine – is that it is premature and the problems will remain.”

Minister Metnar went on to say that the security situation in Afghanistan is not at the level where that government can handle on its own. For that reason, the departure of Czech soldiers was bittersweet, with some left feeling their comrades had died in vain.

Lubomír Metnar | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

But according to Czech Army chief of staff, General Aleš Opata, the NATO mission in and of itself was enormously important, as the operational deployment helped professionalise the army itself.

The last Czech unit to serve in Afghanistan, which had arrived in February and returned in late June, was tasked with dismantling the base in Kabul and transferring armaments, equipment and other Czech Army material back to the Czech Republic. After September 11 this year, only guards at the Czech Embassy in Kabul will remain.