President Milos Zeman paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan over the weekend, meeting with Czech troops serving in the country under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and holding talks with his Afghan counterpart President Hamid Karzai.
President Zeman landed at Kabul airport on Friday, accompanied by the outgoing Czech Defense Minister Vlastimil Picek and Army Chief-of-Staff Petr Pavel. Due to security concerns media coverage was limited to a single reporter from Czech public television and, the Czech head of state was flown from one location to another in a US military helicopter. As an outspoken supporter of the fight against international terrorism, Mr. Zeman said he considered it important to visit Czech troops serving in the country in person because, as he said, merely vocal support for the Czech mission was not enough. The country joined the NATO-led ISAF force in Afghanistan in 2002 and almost 5,000 troops have rotated in the country since. Now there are just over 260 of them left and their mandate is due to expire later this year within the 2014 withdrawal plan which should leave the Afghan authorities fully in charge of the country’s security.
Wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, and walking with the aid of a cane due to his recent knee injury, Mr. Zeman met with soldiers based in Kabul, where a specialized Czech unit helps train Afghan pilots and later with Czech troops protecting the Bagram base, some 50 kilometers from the Afghan capital. He handed over Czech food parcels, vitamins and films and had words of high praise for the country’s special units. Despite the 2014 withdrawal plan, which has been reducing the number of international troops in Afghanistan, the Czech head of state said he thought the country’s special units were doing a worthy job and should stay for as long as they were needed.
“Our soldiers could continue to train Afghan troops and Afghan police officers and they would not be involved in any direct military operations.”
As the first Czech head of state to visit Afghanistan, President Zeman also met for talks with the country’s president Hamid Karzai. The close to two-hour meeting focused on bilateral ties, investment opportunities and student exchanges. The two countries’ representatives also signed a memorandum which will allow the National Museum in Prague to show priceless Buddhist monuments discovered by Czech archeologists in Afghanistan last year.
The visit, which came exactly a year after Mr. Zeman was elected to office, had just one glitch – it ended in a verbal cross-fire between the president’s office and the Czech internet daily iDnes, with the president’s office accusing the internet news site of having put the president’s life at risk by reporting on the visit while it was still underway.