Czechs debate Afghanistan troop commitment


PRAGUE — The Czech government's contentious plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan may be a harbinger of debates across Europe if, as expected, U.S. President Barack Obama comes calling.

"I definitely expect him to do that," said Tomas Weiss, a security analyst at the European think tank here. "He has already said that the allies simply have to send more troops."

Military deployments for NATO are a national issue taken up by individual governments and their parliaments. Henning Riecke, a security analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said Obama will get more European support if he redefines the mission in Afghanistan.

"The Americans say this is about fighting terrorism," he said. "For the Europeans it is about rebuilding a country that is a strategic ally."

That's a sentiment echoed by Afghanistan's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Mohammad Kacem Fazelly. The hope in Kabul is that the Obama administration will compel and inspire European countries to do more.

"The change in the U.S. will affect opinions of friendly countries," he said. "The main thing we need is reconstruction and security."

As a relatively small country of 10.4 million, the Czechs can make only a modest commitment to Afghanistan compared to other countries. The current proposal would add 80 troops, bringing the size of the Czech force working alongside other NATO troops to almost 500.

All of the NATO countries will be expected to contribute more troops, if asked, but more will be expected from bigger countries, such as Britain, France, Germany and, perhaps, Italy and Poland.

Timing will be important in Germany, where parliamentary elections are slated for September, said Riecke.

"Don't expect Germany to send troops into the south, especially in early 2009," he said, referring to the volatile region where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been reasserting themselves in recent years.

And he said not to expect any more German troops until after the election, if at all. Germans are still getting used to having their troops in combat again — nearly 65 years after the end of World War II.

This is the Czech government's second attempt to increase its troop commitment. The first effort — which called for 245 more troops — was rejected by the parliament in December.

This government could never rely on more than a one- or two-vote majority in the 200-seat chamber. And by most accounts the ruling coalition is now a de facto minority government.

Still, it took its political opponents for granted the first time around, said Jan Hamacek. He chairs the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, and is a member of the Czech Social Democratic Party, the leading opposition party.

"If they wanted our support they should talk to us from the beginning," he said, adding that the initial troop numbers were "way too high."

"Some (CSSD) members don't favor the Afghanistan mission as a whole," said Hamacek, who was involved in the negotiations the second time around. He expected parliament to pass the new measure next month. "We won't support it as a party but some, like myself, are likely to support it."

Weiss, the security analyst, said the government was caught off guard by the opposition's revolt.

"They kind of humiliated the government," he said. "They just didn't expect (the opposition) to let them down. Now that the opposition have shown their muscle they can do what they need to do because otherwise it would be a real disaster for the image of the Czech Republic."

Read about how Bruce scored an interview with the Afghan ambassador in his notebook.