Rough terrain, temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius, and a new task await Czech special forces soldiers in West Africa: in February, alongside their French colleagues, they will join the fight against terrorists from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, smugglers, and radical insurgents in northeastern Mali.
Czech deputies approved international deployments for the Takuba mission, which will allow the involvement of Czech special forces in the ongoing conflict in Mali. While all other foreign missions are only conducting training in Mali, Czech soldiers are also authorized to partake in combat missions.
“We are preventing terrorist attacks on our territory. From the point of view of international security, this is an absolutely key area,” said Jan Havránek, deputy minister of defense for the management of the Defense Policy and Strategy Section.
The Sahel region of North Africa, which stretches across eight countries, is an incubator for international terrorism and illegal migration to Europe. One country of particular focus is Mali, where French soldiers have been fighting terrorists for about ten years. Under their command and with the support of other European countries — including Great Britain, Sweden, and Belgium — Czechia will now also participate as the only country from the Visegrád Group.
The Czech Ministry of Defense confirmed that soldiers from the 601st Special Forces Group of General Moravec began moving to Mali at the end of last year. Until recently, an elite unit from Prostějov operated in Afghanistan. It also took part in operations in Iraq and Kuwait following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.
The Czech government approved the deployment of troops to Mali last January. However, international agreements with Mali and Niger were still being negotiated at that time to allow troops to carry out their tasks, which include reconnaissance, advising, training Malian forces, and engaging in action against terrorists from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The agreements have yet to be signed by the Czech president.
The exact number of Czechs participating in the Takuba mission is classified. Last year’s reports from the Ministry of Defense spoke of a maximum of 60 soldiers. The Ministry of Defense has set aside 598 million korunas (€23 million) for 12 months to fund the operation.
The Malian state and its security forces remain weak, and the country is rife with armed militias and religious extremists.
“They started a business with smuggling people, especially to Europe,” said Petr Pavel, a retired army general and former chairman of the NATO military committee who has been deployed to Mali several times.
“Terrorists and smugglers are creating a disinformation campaign that Europe is a paradise for African refugees,” Pavel explained organized migration, which generates millions of euros for smugglers. The Liptako-Gourma region on the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is also crucial from this point of view. Mainly Czech soldiers will work there.
This is not the first deployment in Mali for Czechia. Since 2013, about 120 soldiers have been participating in a European Union training mission called EUTM Mali, which aims to train Malian military units.
“In terms of climate, the Czech Republic and Mali are two incomparable worlds,” said Brigadier General František Ridzák, who has led the Union’s training mission in Mali for the past seven months and received a special award from the French minister of defense for his work. He returned to the Czech Republic on Jan. 12.
According to Ridzák, Czech special forces are facing a challenging environment. A period of drought is beginning in Mali when temperatures are rising and terrorists are more active.
Last year, protests took place in Mali calling for the resignation of the then head of state Boubacar Keita and the government over corruption, failure to cope with the onslaught of Islamists, and poor communication. The country is now preparing for new elections next May.
According to Ridzák, the situation would improve if it was strengthened not only by the Malaysian army but also by the government.
“Above all, the north of the country is in the hands of the rebels. The presence of the state, the police, and other security forces must return there,” said Ridzák. He believes that theiInstability is being used by terrorists to radicalize dissatisfied people.
By participating in the Takuba mission, which consists of about 600 soldiers from various European countries, Czechia responded to the request of French President Emmanuel Macron. Two years ago, he announced that part of the 4,700 French troops deployed in Operation Barkhane, which includes Takuba, would need to be moved from the busy region of Mali to other locations in Africa, such as Chad and Niger.
In 2012, a coup took place on the territory of the former French colony. The subsequent disruption was exploited by terrorists who settled in Mali. Since then, they have threatened not only the whole region but also Europe through controlled migration. France, which has often faced terrorist attacks in recent years, is one of the most affected countries in this respect.
The French public is not very keen on operations in the Sahel mainly due to the loss of lives during the war. For example, at the beginning of January, five soldiers died after a French army vehicle was hit with a bomb.
Title image: Ceremonial arrival of Malian liaison officers on arrival of EUTM Commander General Ridzák (Czech Army)