The withdrawal of the 13th rotation of the Hungarian Provincial Reconstruction Team (HUN PRT) in March 2013 will close a chapter in the role of the Hungarian Defence Forces in Afghanistan. Our series introduces the seven-year story of the Hungarian contingents participating in the reconstruction and normalization of life in the Asian country which has been in war for decades, a story of difficulties, successes and tragedies.
PRT-1, August 2006 – February 2007.

The Hungarian Defence Forces started their engagement in Afghanistan in 2003, when, with parliamentary authorization, a maximum 50-strong “contingent” started service in individual positions with the NATO-led mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the beginning, the Hungarian soldiers served at the ISAF HQ in Kabul, at the German and Greek field hospitals of the multinational brigade, at the Kabul International Airport (KAIA) as well as in Kunduz and Herat, then in April 2004 they joined the work of the provincial reconstruction teams in Kunduz (led by Germany) and Herat (led by Italy).

 The year 2004 was another milestone, since on NATO’s request the 130-strong HDF Light Infantry Company started its service in Kabul on August 1. The company was assigned to the Norwegian battalion headquarters, and was based in the Canadian Camp Julien near Kabul. The mission of the light infantry company in the capital included patrolling, VIP escort, the protection of properties with designated special status as well as the operation of checkpoints and observation posts. In 2006 – in recognition of the excellent performance delivered by the three rotations of the light infantry company – the allies requested Hungary to assume a new role by taking over a Provincial Reconstruction Team as the lead nation. The legal framework for this was provided by the governmental decree No. 2115/2006 (VI. 29). The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is not exclusively a mission of the Hungarian Defence Forces, but a governmental task which involves several cooperating ministries. The PRT inter-departmental committee was formed in 2006, and came to be replaced by the PRT governmental committee in 2008.

  “This was how the story of the HUN PRTs started”, says Lt.-Col. István Megtért, the Operations Chief of the first rotation. (Col. Kálmán Zsigmond, the commander of the HUN PRT-1 is currently serving in Tampa (USA), whereas Lt.-Col. István Rózsemberszky, the chief of staff of the rotation has already retired.) Lt.-Col. Megtért has an impressive track record in missions abroad. He was company commander in the KFOR mission in 2000, then served as liaison officer at the ISAF HQ, Kabul in 2005. In 2006 he became the operations chief of the HUN PRT-1, and in 2008 he deployed to the Balkans – another area of operations – as commander of the 18th rotation of the KFOR HDF Force Protection Battalion. In 2010, he returned to Afghanistan as commander of the third rotation of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT). In 2011, he deployed again with the PRT as deputy commander of the 11th rotation.

 In the year when Hungary was requested to take over a PRT, István Megtért was preparing for the mission in Iraq, but meanwhile, together with many of his comrades, he was reassigned to the Afghanistan contingent.

  At that point the pre-deployment training for the next rotation of the light infantry company was already under way in Hungary, but the compliance with NATO’s request entailed the transformation of everything in accordance with the requirements of the HUN PRT to be formed. The “basic material” – that is, the soldiers of the Airmobile Battalion of Szolnok – was available, although they had been trained for an entirely different mission. At the same time, back then only a few knew what the PRT really was, what tasks it would be assigned and what kind of organizational elements it would need for their execution etc. When a mission start-up team returned from Afghanistan and prepared its report, it turned out that the Hungarian Defence Forces (the Republic of Hungary) were not financially or in any other respect ready to set up and operate a PRT by themselves. The viable alternative seemed to be to take over an already operating and introduced PRT, and to carry on its activities in progress. In accordance with the then political and security situation (after consulting the leadership of ISAF), they selected a PRT run by the Netherlands in Pol-e Khomri, Baghlan Province. The Dutch forces were needed elsewhere, so the Hungarian Defence Forces took over this mission together with the predecessors’ experience and their projects already in progress.
  In what followed, things were heating up as the training in Hungary was transformed concurrently with the withdrawal of the light infantry company from Kabul; the soldiers required by the PRT and designated to fill special positions were called up and trained, and after their training in August 2006 the contingent was deployed to the region by airlift in three phases. The team first arrived in Kabul, from where they were redeployed to Mazar-e Sharif by airlift, and then they covered the 180-km distance to Pol-e Khomri by road under Dutch escort. (The movement made together with the last troop rotation of the light infantry company involved the redeployment of part of the contingent’s equipment and weaponry as well.) On arriving at their station, a very complex and difficult handover-takeover process began. (There was a “double contingent” in the camp, as the Dutch did not translate most of the documents and operations orders (OPORDs) into English, and the different convoys departed and arrived on a daily basis.) Besides leaving part of its tasks, projects in progress and technical equipment behind, the Dutch PRT handed over to the Hungarian partners the necessary funds for the task execution, so there was no “break” in the work. The only thing the local state organizations, NGOs and the population noticed about this process was that there were new markings on the foreign military vehicles moving around the area under the control of the German-led Regional Command North (RC North). The Dutch and the Hungarian Ministers of Defence both attended the handover-takeover ceremony in the camp.

 The Hungarian political and military leadership tasked the HUN PRT-1, among others, with making the Hungarian marking and the Hungarian flag known around the province, winning acceptance for our presence and intention to help, besides taking over and carrying on the tasks, and also with reaching the initial operational capability (IOC) by the end of the mandate, thereby creating the conditions for the second rotation to reach full operational capability (FOC).
 The task was clear, but at the same time, due to the lack of experience, the great challenges demanded creative and self-motivated solutions from the contingent. It was only through continuous presence (by patrolling and maintaining contact with the population) and through continuing the projects in progress on a high level that they managed to introduce the marking and to win acceptance for it. The developing circumstances also made the activity of the first rotation more difficult because after being pushed out from the south in consequence of the offensives launched by NATO forces in Southern Afghanistan, the irregular forces of Taliban fighters, the forces linked to al-Kaida, the warlords fishing in troubled waters, the drug-producers and dealers all turned up in Baghlan Province, an area that had until then been considered to be relatively secure.
 It was telling of the then security situation that the patrols and Mission Teams of the contingent came under attack nine times in six months: they were fired on with assault rifles, machine guns, handheld anti-tank grenade launchers and on two occasions, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were also detonated beside the Hungarian convoys. Thanks to the soldiers’ skills – and by good luck –, the contingent did not suffer any losses in these attacks, despite the fact that the first 180-strong rotation of the HUN PRT could not even dream of the equipment, weaponry and vehicles of the currently deployed contingent. Like our allies in ISAF, we used the military equipment available to us, and it was only later, following a drastic change in the security situation, that armored vehicles were procured.

  The trailblazing contingent did not have a number of organizational elements that today form an organic part of all missions, such as battlefield intelligence and psychological operations (PSYOPS) capabilities, and so on. The Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) capability was in its infancy at that time, as the specialists of the CIMIC center – which had been formed in the Hungarian Defence Forces two years before the mission –, were mastering and practicing their profession under real-world circumstances in the area of operations.

 In the face of all these difficulties, the first rotation of the HUN PRT accomplished its mission excellently. Besides carrying on the projects taken over from the Dutch partners, they gradually started their own investment-supporting activity, which was funded by the Hungarian state and the US Agency for International Development (USAID, the governmental organization of the United States of America responsible for international aid). Their mission was a success story: by playing a leading part in renovating and building roads, bridges, schools and hospitals, and completing the projects launched by the Dutch, the first Hungarian contingent significantly contributed to the improvement of the population’s living and working conditions and to the provision of health care services. (The first contingent was also instrumental in building and equipping the lung clinical ward of the Pol-e Khomri hospital.) The first donations also contributed to winning acceptance for the Hungarian marking and flag as well as our presence. In this way, blankets, tents, flashlights and balls were directly delivered to the settlements belonging to the area of responsibility. It may well be that viewers who are unfamiliar with the topic would smile indulgently at all these things, yet this was the way for the first contingent to win the hearts and minds of the population in the shortest possible time. Being the first ones in the history of the HUN PRTs, these soldiers served in Afghanistan without taking their leave, while creating the conditions for the successful activity of the second mission as well.

(Béla Szabó, photos: Tünde Rácz, HUN PRT-1 and archive)