Photo exhibition of Czech mission in Afghanistan opens in Parliament

Vlasta Parkanová and Karel Schwarzenberg, photo:

The Czech Republic is going to increase the number of troops deployed next year in Afghanistan, although Czech lawmakers are yet to approve the Defence Ministry’s plans for the Czech Provincial and Reconstruction Team. To show what the army and civilian experts actually do in the Afghan province of Logar, Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová has organized a new photo exhibition in the lobby of the Czech Parliament’s lower house.

A toast by the Czech Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanová to all those who are working for a better Afghanistan, and most importantly, she said, to the Afghans themselves. On Tuesday, the defence minister and the foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, opened an exhibition in the lower house of the Czech Parliament of photos of the Czech Provincial and Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. Mr Schwarzenberg says this is a responsibility the Czech Republic won’t shy away from.

“I think it’s something we all do together, as allies in NATO and in the European Union, and it therefore makes sense that we’re doing together even the dangerous missions. It can’t be that only some countries would send people to Afghanistan and other dangerous places, so we deliberately chose a place which is dangerous and we started our PRT. We think that not only the military missions are important; we want to care about the civilians, to help the Afghans themselves to get some basic amenities for life, and that’s our work there.”

The Czech Republic sent its first military contingent to Afghanistan in 2002, as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. However, the largest Czech mission today is focused on reconstruction work in the province of Logar. The Czech Provincial Reconstruction Team, working within NATO’s ISAF operation, has been assisting local authorities in various agricultural, environmental and traffic projects. The exhibition shows Czech soldiers patrolling Afghan mountains and deserts and their life at the base. It also features moments from the everyday life of the locals, including a Czech Press Photo award winning picture of a Czech instructor training Afghan troops. One of the photographers, whose pictures are featured in the exhibition, is Marek Štys.

“Well, it’s quite nice to seem the printed in a good format. It sort of mentally takes me back to Afghanistan where I spent more than three years. So it’s nice to see that they are used in this way.”

Marek Štys
Did you ever get into a dangerous situation while taking these photos?

“Not really. I have been working as a humanitarian worker for many years, and we always had an excellent reception and welcome from the local people. The only dangerous moments were possibly during the transport on the road because traffic in Afghanistan is quite fast and heavy, especially on asphalt roads.”

Is there any picture that you like more others, or do you have a favourite picture perhaps?

“One picture which brings me back into an interesting situation is that photo with those people clearing snow in central Afghanistan. That was an interesting situation; near that famous Banyan we got stuck with our driver for more than three weeks, and we had to rescue ourselves on horses because winter is so harsh in Afghanistan so that roads cannot be kept open for traffic. So that was an interesting moment.”

Are you planning to go back any time soon?

“I go to Afghanistan quite regularly. The truth is that I haven’t been there for some 18 months now, but in March I should go for some two or three weeks to monitor our projects there. I think that next year, I might go at least twice.”

On the day the exhibition was launched, the Czech Parliament was going to vote on a plan of the country’s foreign missions for next year. Tuesday’s session was in the end suspended, but the exhibition will still be there when the MPs meet for their next session. The spokesman for the Defence Ministry Andrej Čírtek says this was not the plan, but he naturally welcomes the opportunity.

“Speaking frankly, it’s accidental. But it’s fortunate that it’s possible to have such an event just in time when Czech deputies and senators talk about Czech missions for next year. It’s of course a welcome opportunity to present our missions in a rational way and to remind our lawmakers about the true purpose of our missions.”

But it seems that when Czech lawmakers do get to vote on the Defence Ministry’s proposal for next year’s foreign missions, the debate will be heated. This year, there are 480 Czech soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, together with more than 200 civilian experts. For 2009, the ministry has asked for an increase in troop numbers. Jan Hamáček is an MP for the opposition Social Democrats, and the head of the Chamber of Deputies Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The original number proposed by the government, which was 745, was rather unrealistic. What we are trying to do now is to find a compromise solution which would on one hand allow and enable the opposition to support it, and at the same time, which would allow the Czech Republic to fulfil all the commitments that we have made to our allies. I think that the negotiations will last for at least a week, and I firmly hope that we’ll have a compromise solution that will pass in Parliament.”

The Defence Ministry believes any such compromise will not prevent the Czech Army from fulfilling their commitments, but Andrej Čírtek says they are ready to negotiate.

“In the history of the Czech Republic since 1993, there has never been a case of the proposal of foreign operations for the coming year was not approved by Parliament. But it seems that this year it can be the case and for the first time, there is a probability of some kind of compromise.”

But Social Democrat MP Jan Hamáček says that even if the proposed number is lower, there will be more Czech troops in Afghanistan next year.

“If you look closer on the numbers and the deployments, you will see that the required number of over 700 is not necessary. There is a lot of slack. I think that we are able to push the MOD into a more realistic approach, and I think they are becoming more realistic. I think that a plausible number is somewhat below 600.”

The exhibition will remain in the lobby of the Czech Parliament’s lower house for the next two weeks. The launch was presented by Major Pavla Poláková, who will herself be one of the Czech troops deployed in Afghanistan next year. I asked her if she was looking forward to her new mission.

“Yes, I am looking to going to Afghanistan. I’m a soldier and it’s my job.”

Have you been on a foreign mission before?

“Yes, last year I was in Kosovo. I came back in February.”

What do you think the most difficult part of your job will be?

“I don’t know. But I have been to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo many times already.”