In this final segment of Radio Prague’s series on Czechs in Afghanistan, Christian Falvey returns to the NATO base at Kabul International Airport to visit the most celebrated Czech army unit of past and present, the Radiological, Chemical and Biological Protection Brigade.
The North Bohemian town of Liberec has plenty of things to be proud of, and one of them is the 31st Brigade of Radiological, Chemical and Biological Protection, an important part of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Force in Afghanistan. Chief of Staff at Kabul International Airport, Captain Miroslav Folvarský, told me where the unit’s lofty reputation comes from.
“I think this is because the Czech Army used to be focused on a specific branch of the military, and that was chemicals – chemical units and medical units. I think we are one of the best armies in the world in these areas, because we have such specialised laboratories for identifying these kinds of chemical and biological weapons and so on. If something happens in the world, we are the first nation to send these kinds of units. For example, we used the chemical CBRN unit at the Olympic Games in Greece, and so on. We are mobile in these kinds of things I think.”
The idea of anything being “best in the world” piques the ears and suspicions of anyone, for better or for worse. In the case of the chemical unit on the ground in Afghanistan – the “Chemists” as they are referred to in the Czech press – I could ask the commander of the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Jan Hruboň, to rate them for himself.
Your commander says that you are one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world. Do you think that’s fair to say?
“I think we are still very good, but nowadays a lot of countries have started to specialise in CBRM. So now there are maybe five or seven countries on the same level.”
And do you train other countries?
“In the Czech Republic we train the Indian armed forces. And I hope that we will continue in this job in Afghanistan, because the Afghan Minister of Defence asked the Czech Republic to help them to create CBRN units in the Afghan Army.”
The Czech CBRN brigade, short for “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear”, is indeed sought after the world over. In the last 20 years they have served in all of NATO’s major involvements, in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and have been called out across Europe, from Spain to Estonia, for their defensive expertise. In Afghanistan as well they are only one of two units responding to issues involving their competencies in a country that has been a battleground for three decades.
“In Afghanistan there are just two CBRN units. One is German, they are in the north of Afghanistan, and we are the second and we are here in Kabul, so all of Afghanistan is our area of operation, so it’s a very hard job, because there are only 13 of us.”
How often do you travel out into the field?
“In the field we have conducted nine missions, and of these nine missions, five were outside the vicinity of Kabul. So we have flown to Fayzabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat...”
That’s nine missions over what period of time?
“Well, our operation capabilities started in December, and now it is April, so nine missions in the last five months.”
One of the main reasons for the fame of the Czech chemical unit is simply its long continuance, formed as it was out of the onslaught of mass chemical warfare in WWI.
“The chemical units in the Czech Republic started in 1916 in Italy, because in Italy there were fire units which were the pioneers for the chemical units. And then the chemical corps was established in 1919. Since 1955 the units have been in Liberec.”
The modern reason for the unit’s renown however comes from its role in the Persian Gulf War two decades ago, when 169 of the, then Czechoslovak, chemists were assigned to protect the Saudi Arabian troops from any potential chemical weapons in the first offensive. They lost one of their number in Kuwait, but their work was lauded a few years later by the United States and their participation in the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations was highly appreciated.
Fast forward 20 years and we have operation Enduring Freedom, a.k.a. the war in Afghanistan. From the outside this place looks like a large blue circus tent, but inside is the CBRN base’s state-of-the-art laboratory for the detection of biological agents.
“When I get a sample from the field, they pack it properly according to international standards, and I unpack the sample here and isolate the DNA. Once that is done, the DNA is considered to be harmless. Then I take the DNA sample to the track part of the laboratory and analyse it using a polymerase chain reaction. So if there is a suspicion that we have received a really dangerous biological sample then I can give a result within four hours.”
So are you very busy here in this lab?
“Actually, yes. Because the detection of biological warfare agents is one part of my job but the second part is hygienic control of the dining facilities here around the base, and sometimes when we visit our mates in Logar or somewhere else we take samples there and analyse them for hygienic purposes. So I am quite a busy man.”
Not only the old factories and Soviet bases in Afghanistan have left dangerous contamination – chemical and biological hazards are everywhere. Identifying them and clearing them from sites all over Afghanistan is the primary function of the Czech CBRN unit, and that is what they are doing now in the narrow space of the mobile chemical laboratory.
“Right now we’re analysing a soil sample from the hospital in Farah, we are checking the hygienic situation in the hospital. We have already tested the water, which was fine, except for an open water gutter and that was heavily contaminated with ammonia, phosphates, nitrates, everything you can think of, dangerous if it even touches you.”
Of the 70-some-odd troops at the Czech airport base in Kabul there are only six women, and so I was surprised to find two in one place. Not a coincidence, they told me.
“No, it isn’t a coincidence. Laboratory work in our army is usually done by women because it’s less physically demanding. And it isn’t even interesting for a lot of men because it’s not so action-packed. This work is more about patience than action. And in our laboratories at home a team of five is always supposed to include three men, because some things are simply too heavy for two women to carry. When you’re setting up a mobile laboratory in the field you really need someone who is stronger. And chemical units do tend to have more women than most other units.”
The search for weapons of mass destruction, in Afghanistan like in Iraq, may seem like a tired phrase, but indeed one never knows what they will stumble upon. It may not be the most utilised function of the Czech chemical unit, but if push comes to shove on some abandoned Soviet airbase or elsewhere, with the finding of some terrible material, it will probably be the Czech “Chemists” who will have to deal with it, and they’ve had their share of scares.
“HQ suspected that there were two rockets [in a field] that may have nuclear warheads, or that there may be toxic fuel in them, so they ordered us to go there and check them.”
Where would rockets with nuclear warheads have come from?
“From the Russian Afghan war. There were Russian barracks nearby, so the Russians left them here when they left Afghanistan. We were a little bit nervous, but we realised there was nothing going on when we got there, because there were Afghan children playing there, so I thought there shouldn’t be anything there.”
And so what were they?
“Just normal ballistic rockets.”
For all their use, the chemical unit could hypothetically disappear from Afghanistan almost from one day to the next, depending on the political situation in the Czech Republic. Foreign missions are approved by Parliament on a yearly basis, and the Czech populace tends to be opposed to foreign military adventures in general. It is that very reluctance however that has created a tradition of providing military aid to allies in the form of defence units, like the chemists. Strange, perhaps, for a country whose scary Škoda guns Hemmingway wrote about in the First World War, but arguably understandable in the context of a small country at the crossroads of Europe, with a non-violent specification it is proud of.
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