Catherine Lytle: From Gerbils to Trolleybus


There are stories in my family about two Mongolian gerbils that my uncle owned in the late 1970s. Their names were Babrak and Karmal. I’ve wondered over time how could a 10-year-old boy living in a flat on the 11th floor of a Socialist concrete building in then-Czechoslovakia could know the name of a president of Afghanistan so well that he named his pets after him?

In this paper I will show how uncle’s pets are a symbol of the deep relationship between the Czech Republic and Afghanistan, now officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovak Republic since 1993) established this long, rich relationship with Afghanistan that in the 1920s during which time exchange of aid was already occurring, including construction of a sugar refinery in Baghlan province under Czechoslovakian supervision.1 The first diplomatic treaty that was signed between Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan was in 1937 in Paris. Still, the treaty was not realized until 1949 when the Czechoslovak government opened an embassy in Kabul; the Afghanis opened their embassy in Prague in 1950.2 Mohammed Daoud Khan, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, visited Czechoslovakia in 1957 and a year later the Czechoslovak Prime Minister Viliam Široký, visited Afghanistan in 1958. By the late 20th century, ties between the two countries were so well established that even King Mohammed Zahir Shah visited Czechoslovakia in 1970.3 While a new treaty was ratified on December 17, 1973, between the two countries after the creation of the Republic of Afghanistan, this treaty was short lived due to the Soviet invasion in 1979.4

While the relationship was already well established, it was only after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that many more interesting ties between the two countries were forged. Economic trade intensified as Czechoslovakia actively desired to participate in Afghanistan’s potential economic growth. On June 24, 1981, a delegation led by Babrak Karmal arrived in Prague and signed a treaty promising friendship and cooperation between the two countries. One of the most prominent projects of the 1980s was the establishment of a trolleybus system in Kabul named Milli, about which I will discuss in more detail.

The Soviet Union regarded Afghanistan as a buffer against the pro-West allied forces. Czechoslovakia, following in the Soviet footsteps, offered unconditional support for the Afghanistan revolution and Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah’s regimes. Support can be seen through the supply of arms, training of Afghani forces and donation of credited supplies that predictably would not be redeemable. After the signing of Geneva agreements in April 1988 Czechoslovak engagement in Afghanistan increased further based on the false predictions that in peace Czechoslovakia would utilize its economic position.5

According to Milan Vyhlídal, a Czech scholar that wrote a comprehensive Master’s thesis on the Czechsoslovak-Afghani military training between the years 1948-1989,  there were two primary types of aid that Czechoslovakia was offering: the physical and the intangible. The physical aid can be seen in the form of military technology, arms and uniforms or the import of equipment for its production. The intangible aid mostly pertains to knowledge which was manifested through the stationing of Czechoslovak specialists in foreign military facilities such as factories or schools. Aside from Afghanistan, the most aid was also given to Libya, Syria and Iraq.6 The Soviet Union wanted to represent a neutral standpoint in these countries while offering its services at a cheaper cost, and agricultural and military aid in various forms.  Czechoslovakia wanted to transcend that standpoint.





The relationship between Afghanistan and the Czechoslovakia has historically focused on economic aid. It was through the money and military equipment that the Czechoslovakia supplied that helped destroy Afghanistan. Recently, however, that relationship changed to one where Czech soldiers are sent on missions to Afghanistan as part of NATO. Either way, it appears as though the relationship is one in which the Czech forces always try to benefit. How is it that a country of 10 million has such a profound and deep tie with a country seemly very remote from its own interests?


The Creation of Military Schools 

The increasing number of foreign students in Czechoslovakia and the complexity of military machinery being supplied only naturally resulted in the countries receiving aid from Czechoslovakia to found education centers. This included military schools and training centers of various levels— from apprentice and secondary military schools to technical universities which offered a wide range of military engineering education corresponding with the latest needs of modern army.7

At first the aim was to educate and train the military personnel in basic tank and air force operations. This was mainly done by the ČSLA (Československá lidová armáda, Czechoslovak People’s Army), Vojenská technická akademie Antonína Zápotockého8 (Antonín Zápotocký’s Technical Military Academy ).9 In Czechoslovakia in 1962, the Military Academy as a part of its transformation into Antonín Zápotocký Military Technical Academy created a department called Foreign (International) Faculty of Antonín Zápotocký Military Technical Academy.”10 This School was responsible for international students primarily from Afghanistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Syria, Iraq and Algeria.11 Between the years 1961 and 1991 a total of 274 Afghani students enrolled and studied at the Antonín Zápotocký’s Technical Military Academy in Brno.12 The students were enrolled either in a 10-month-long program or a 3-year-long program; the 3-year-long program included the following curriculum: first year, intensive Czech language course, second year, general technical training, third year – specialization study. The aim of this program was not just to educate future technical specialists but also to train future military commanding officers.13 The work of Czechoslovak teachers became an important source of experience for future similar foreign operations.14

The most prominent educational effort was seen at the military academy in Pul-i-Charkhi where there was between 12 and 20 Czechoslovak experts. According to contract no. 4513315 it was agreed upon that Czechoslovakia would between the years 1971 and 1972 send experts to Pul-i-Charkhi to train military and technical personal. It is interesting that all expenses were paid for by Afghanistan and in the event that the Czechoslovak’s envoy to Afghanistan exceeded nine months, the travel expenses were also covered by Afghanistan.16 The Czechoslovak’s average working hours were 42 hours over five working days in a week and were granted holidays on the days that are observed as national holidays in Czechoslovakia. Furthermore they were entitled to a 35-day holiday with an additional five days solely for travel purposes.17

Czechoslovakia began to build military schools in Afghanistan in the early 1960s and by 1963 the number of Czechoslovak experts stationed in Afghanistan led to an unusual decision to establish an office of a military attaché there.18 Another fascinating exchange between the two countries was in 1984 through the construction of a Telecommunications building in Kabul for which 10 Afghani personnel were trained in Žiar to learn how to assemble aluminum constructions.19


Trolleybus Milli

In 1976, the population of Kabul hovered around 337,000 and the first trolleybus line  (Figure 3) serviced the city was constructed between 1976 and 1979 by the Elektrizace železnic Praha, (a company which specialized in development, design, production and mounting of elements of overhead contact lines for railway, tram, and trolleybus transportation.) The line was operated by 25 blue and white trolleybuses that went between the Pamir cinema and Silo (Figure 4).  The line was officially opened in February 1979.20 While the line was being constructed, the workers had to overcome many obstacles that were not at first necessarily evident. For example, there was plenty of high level of ground water so when holes were being dug for posts, they had to be specially reinforced with steel poles.21

By March 1988, 86 more trolleybuses type 9TrH23 were added resulting the operation of between 55 and 60 trolleybuses during peak hour. Witnesses claim that the management of the trolleybuses in 1988 was in rather bad condition and even resorted to some quite comical solution to problems that the overhead cables presented:

At some of the crossings the trolleybuses passed in following way: a trolleybus would slow down, small children would climb aboard, skillfully pull down the trolley poles, the bus would carry through the crossing due to momentum, the children would reconnect the poles to the lines and the bus could continue on its way. The children were, of course, compensated with a few coins.22




Another funny sight was when the trolleybus was passing through the city market. The contact line lead directly above heads of salespeople and their customers while the street for trolleybuses along the market side.This strained the contact poles excessively. After a discussion with Czech experts  the Afghan side concluded, that demounting the line and moving it above the street seemed better. It is not known if it actually happened.23

The whole line was about 12.5km long which consisted of three separate lines so the passengers were forced to transfer, each time paying a new fare. The forced purchase of multiple fares was mainly to pay for the high electrical fees.24 Even with the forced multiple payment, this mode of transportation was still the cheapest option, and therefore the trolleybuses were always overcrowded. Private bus companies had to compete with this new booming industry and so they always provided buses that closely followed the overcrowded trolleybuses as a fallback option for the passengers, of course for a fee five-times that of the public trolleybus. Unlike the trolleybus system in Czechoslovakia, the lines were not distinguished with number but rather with an indication of the direction of the line.25

During the war against the Soviets, bombs were often detonated within the trolleybuses, however, the author of the article Troleybuses in Afghanistan believes that even if the war had not affected the operation of the trolleybuses that the local management office of the trolleybuses would not be able to maintain the services without Czechoslovak supervision because the transition between camel transportation and trolleybuses happened too quickly. Sadly, the trolleybus operation system only lasted between 8-9 years and unfortunately Kabul is one of examples when former great trolleybus promoters become their merciless destroyers. Pictures of trolleybuses after only 8 to 9 years of their running clearly illustrate the local situation.

Until today it is incredibly difficult to obtain reliable information on the situation in Afghanistan, however, it can be inferred from latest reports that trolleybuses do not service the city since 1992 when the Northern and Old parts of Kabul were bombed. The Czechoslovak steel poles can sometimes be spotted, sometimes even with remnant of the overhead cables. The author of the article Troleybuses in Afghanistan speculates that much of the cables were taken and used as ammunition for arms.26

Babrak Karmal Exile in Czechoslovakia

While the aforementioned military and technical aid can be considered unique and in no respect ordinary, the most interesting and intriguing aspect of Czechoslovak— Afghani relations are embodied by none other than Babrak Karmal. What is most interesting is that I was able to find information on this exile through a local Slovak newspaper even though no official documents appear to exist. All the documents that are available on this matter have been compiled by Ing. Richard Kafka on the official website of Sklené Teplice, the town in which Karmal was exiled.

From the year 1979, Karmal was relocated to Sklené Teplice, in preparation to become the new communist leader of Afghanistan. While he resided in a “Night Sanatorium” other residents  and workers had no clue about his true identity. There are almost no photos from that time and Karmal’s identity was kept strictly anonymous, however, as Ing. Kafka demonstrates, photographs from M. Branickej would suggest a different reality.27 As seen in figure 5. there is a clear awareness of Karmal’s importance as he is welcomed by the workers of ZSNP Závody Slovenského národného povstania (Factory of the Slovak National Uprising) as well as the administration of the municipal committee of Žiar nad Hronom.

Karmal and his family were concealed on the third floor of the building, however, his daughters Anahita (17) and Uida (19) and son Kava (15) roamed around the building freely, often interacting with patients. Soon it was even possible to converse nicely with Kava nicely in Slovak and he often played football with the locals.28  It was not until the end of the year when the locals were watching the news that was reporting on the inauguration of the new president of Afghanistan: none other than their favorite visitor Babrak Karmal. Kafka speculates that when the incumbent president Hafizullah Amin the “Great Communist Leader” invited Soviet troops in a movement masked as “comradely help” or international assistance that Kamral was concealed within these tanks. Unsurprisingly, the media never reported these tanks that were supposedly coming to a comrade’s “assistance” nor did they inform them that President Amin himself was shortly after the “aids” arrival executed.29 Karmal became the President of Afghanistan on 27th December 1979 as well as the secretary general of the communist party Parčam, chairman of the revolutionary council, prime minister and commander in chief.  This maneuver allowed the USSR to justify the occupation of Afghanistan and the employment of 11500 soldiers equipped with the most modern arms, uniform and air force support.30





Karmal departed for the USSR in 1986 where he was treated for some illness, but succumbed to it and died in 1996 at the age of 67. Whatever subsequent events transpired between Afghanistan and the USSR, the prelude that happened in the little spa town of Sklené Teplice, cannot be overlooked and if possible, should be urged to be investigated more thoroughly in order to obtain any further knowledge on the history of Afghanistan and the Czechoslovak—Afghani relations.

Current Engagements 

In the more recent years, many Czech soldiers have been dispatched to Afghanistan as part of NATO, many of whom are stationed at the field unit no. 11. According to statistics provided by the Czech Ministry of Defense, by 5th December 2002, 3634 patients were treated out of which 307 were ISAF soldiers, 225 Czech soldiers, 1603 patients at the hospital at the base, 1197 patients were treated in field hospitals while on a mission, 108 in other locations and 394 at the dental clinic. While the operating rooms may appear similar to the ones that Czech people might be acquainted with, the main surgeon actually said that while that may be true, the types of surgeries that are performed are radically different.


Figure 8. Photo by Czech Ministry of Defense. Cpt. MUDr.Ivo Žvák a Cpt.MUDr. Michal Plodr


For example, mainly the doctors are faced with untreated gunshot wounds, festering bone infections or improperly healed bones resulting in deformations.31 The chief doctor on site said that, “we are one team and everybody has his/her own task and in fact we all contribute to the patient’s treatment. We are happiest to see clear improvement in a patient’s condition regardless who the patient is.”32 This difference in condition is an example of a transfer of intangible knowledge. The doctor claimed that there is a clear shortage of “golden Czech hands” meaning that the medical team cannot stop working for even one day.

Between the years of 2010-2017, the Czech Republic listed Afghanistan as priority recipient of international aid,  designated for developing countries, for economic and social development, assigning it under the category of “countries of priority with a program of co-operation.33 The Czech Republic has identified agriculture, water and sanitation, and education as the priorities. Furthermore, support for Afghani institutions, reintegration of refugees, women’s rights and the drug awareness programs are some of the other plans that are being considered.

During the early 1970s a sum of $20 million dollars was designated for the expansion and construction of facilities, however, this sum was later increased to $50 million, with which, Afghanistan also bought 12 L-39 Albatros aircrafts.34 These aircrafts’s use promptly changed after the Soviet invasion on 1979 when they were used to bombard the mujahideen.35 Today the aid being given is radically different. In 2011 the aid was 6mil. Kč ( 300000 USD), 2013 21mil Kč (1.05 mil USD), and 24mil Kč in 2014 (1.08mil USD) and 2015 (960000 USD).36 The increase in aid is directly a result of the successful realization of projects that corresponded to the immanent needs of Afghanistan as identified by the Czech government.


The symbolic peak of friendship between the two countries was King Mohammed Zahir Shah’s visit to Czechoslovakia in 1970.  Over 6 275 soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan between the years 1990 and the present, and over a third of the 2500 who were deployed to Logar province between 03.2008 – 7.2013 as part of the NATO-led ISAF operation served multiple times.37 The strong presence of Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic in Afghanistan was mostly under the influence of the Soviet totalitarian dictatorship. The Czech presence, whether coerced by Soviet trade policy or developed as a way for supposed easy money via the transfer of engineering projects, never seemingly fulfilled the reasons for being there. In recent decades Czech nation has had a different mission by participating in the reconstruction of Afghanistan via the NATO alliance (Czech Republic became a member in 1999). I have no doubts that Czechs there are sincerely trying to help to improve living conditions of people in Afghanistan. The need for their continued presence in what is today largely a failed state is a part of another and more complex question.




  1. Marek, Dějiny Afghánistánu, 328
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. ibid 329
  5.  MZV, Československo a země jižní a jihovýchodní Asie v letech 1945–1989,
  6. Vyhlídal, thesis, 2
  7. ibid
  8. Here after (VA AZ)
  9. ibid
  10. ibid 10
  11. ibid 11
  12. ibid 73
  13. ibid 11
  14. ibid 13
  15.  SA AČR Olomouc, VA AZ, Kontrakt č.slo 45133. Překlad do češtiny , karton 426
  16.  Vyhlídal, thesis, 68
  17. ibid 72
  18.  MZV, Československo a země jižní a jihovýchodní Asie v letech 1945–1989, 3
  19.  Kafka, Afgánsky prezident v Sklených Tepliciach
  20.  Společnost pro veřejnou dopravu (Public Transportation Society), Trolejbusy v Kábulu,
  21. ibid
  22. ibid
  23. ibid
  24. ibid
  25. ibid
  26. ibid
  27.  Kafka, Afgánsky prezident v Sklených Tepliciach
  28. ibid
  29. ibid
  30. ibid
  31.  Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic, Afghánská zima.
  32. ibid
  33.  Velvyslanectví České republiky v Kabulu, Česká rozvojová pomoc v Afghánistánu
  34.  MZV, Československo a země jižní a jihovýchodní Asie v letech 1945–1989, 4
  35. ibid
  36.  Velvyslanectví České republiky v Kabulu, Česká rozvojová pomoc v Afghánistánu
  37.  Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic, History of Czech Military Participation in Operations Abroad (1990 – 2016)




Českoslovenké ministerstvo zahraničních věcí.  Československo a země jižní a jihovýchodní Asie v letech 1945–1989. Zkrácená verze vědeckého projektu MZV RM 08/02/08.

Kafka, Richard. “Afgánsky prezident v Sklených Tepliciach.” Sklené Teplice. Accessed 9.12.2016.

Marek, Jan.  Dějiny Afghánistánu. Praha : Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2006.

Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic, Afghánská zima. Accessed 13.12.2016.

Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces of the Czech Republic, History of Czech Military Participation in Operations Abroad (1990 – 2016). Accessed 9.12.2016.

Novodvorská, Jana. “Hodnocení české zahraniční pomoci Afghánistánu.” Dissertation, Masaryk University in Brno, 2008

Společnost pro veřejnou dopravu (Public Transportation Society), “Trolejbusy v Kábulu” Accessed 12.12.2016.

Velvyslanectví České republiky v Kabulu (Czech Embassy in Kabul), Česká rozvojová pomoc v Afghánistánu. Accessed 16.12.2016.

Vyhlídal, Milan. “Československá pomoc při výstabě vojenského školství v arabském světě v letech 1948-1989.” Master’s thesis, Masaryk University in Brno, 2010