Why are Czechs opposed to sending elite troops to Afghanistan?

Special troop for Afghanistan, photo: Hospodarske noviny, L. Svetnicka

The Czech president Vaclav Klaus recently expressed his support for the Czech mission in Afghanistan, soon after polls suggested 75 percent of Czechs were opposed to sending elite soldiers there to help flush out al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban. It is the first time Czech soldiers have gone into combat since World War II.

To further gauge public opinion, I asked people on the streets of Prague what they thought of the troop deployment.

Man: "As a former soldier I'm against it. I think it has nothing to do with our soldiers. We didn't like it when the Russians invaded our country in 1968 - this is the same thing."

Woman: "Given that we're a member of NATO and given our own government's position, I think it's absolutely fine."

Woman: "I wouldn't have sent our troops there. I'd definitely have left it to the Americans. We've just been moving between Russia and the United States, and now we're for America. I don't like that."

That last opinion may be indicative of how a lot of Czechs feel on the issue, says commentator Tomas Pecina. He argues that the progress of the war in Iraq has turned Czech people against what they perceive as similar operations elsewhere.

"Military action in Iraq and military action in Afghanistan are basically the same thing in the eyes of an average Czech. There is a fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, in that the Taliban was supporting al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and of course bin Laden did something Czechs did not approve of. But on the other hand, Czechs are not supporting Bush's policies, the Bush Doctrine, so-called. And these two instances, Afghanistan and Iraq, are viewed as just part of the same expansionist policies."

Former Czech ambassador to Kuwait Jana Hybaskova takes a rather different view. She says opposition to troops taking part in "Enduring Freedom" reflects a failure on the part of the Czech Defence Ministry to explain the reasons for the mission.

"The information which was offered to the public about the mission, why they go there, what are they supposed to do there, with whom they have to collaborate and co-operate...was not very clear, so the public lacks information. Of course when it comes to special units you usually do not speak about the precise form of operations. But still I think our military had enough room to inform more properly what is the task, why they have to go there."

And despite the lack of enthusiasm for sending troops to Afghanistan, says Jana Hybaskova, most people in the Czech Republic are keen to play a part in the "war on terror".

"I am sure that generally people here in this country feel terrorism as a threat, they feel part of Western society, they know and they knew it before Madrid that definitely we have to do something against it."

Some Czech soldiers are already in Afghanistan, and the Special Forces which will take part in "Enduring Freedom" are expected to arrive in around a month's time. As yet there have been no Czech casualties in Afghanistan. However, if Czech soldiers start coming home in body bags there could well be an increase in anti-war feeling in this country.