22nd Oct 2020

EU lab to combat roadside bombs in Afghanistan

  • Roadside bombs are the number one cause of death for Western soldiers in Afghanistan (Photo: Nato/Liepke Plancke/AVDD/RNLAF)

European defence ministers meeting for the first time under the chairmanship of EU foreign and security chief Catherine Ashton on Monday (26 April) decided to set up a mobile forensic lab to help soldiers in places such as Afghanistan to avoid roadside bombs and explosive devices.

A French initiative, the mobile lab is to analyse bomb debris and should be deployed within a year, most probably in Afghanistan, Alexander Weis, chief of the European Defence Agency said during a press briefing.

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"In 2009, there were more than 8,000 incidents in Afghanistan and only in February 2010, 721 such devices exploded, leaving 28 allied troops dead," Mr Weis added.

The EU is so far only present in Afghanistan with a police training mission. But most of its member states contribute troops to Nato's military operation, which was launched in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

There were no immediate figures on the cost of the lab project, which the agency offered to support from its "quite humble" operational budget and to try to gather more sponsorship from the defence industry.

"Member states were reluctant in putting additional national money into this project," the head of the EDA said, whose annual budget of €30 million is also made of contributions from national budgets.

France will now have to see which countries actually put forward explosives experts or offer other concrete suport. Poland, Britain and Germany have already signalled their interest in contributing.

Defence ministers meeting with Ms Ashton at a Sunday dinner ahead of the council meeting had "very constructive" talks on how to re-inforce their new relationship, one EU diplomat told this website.

The dinner was designed to make a fresh start between Ms Ashton and the defence chiefs, after she missed an informal meeting with them in February, due to agenda issues. Several ministers back then complained in the media and via Twitter that the British peer had started off on the wrong foot.

The impatience of defence chiefs to hear Ms Ashton's views is also linked to the fact that some practicalities of defence co-operation are to change under EU's new legal framework, the Lisbon Treaty.

Defence-related research, for instance, can now be entrusted to the European Commission, but it could also stay under the umbrella of the European Defence Agency, an inter-governmental body. "It is an open discussion. Ministers weighed the pros and cons and asked both the commission and the EDA to report back later this year on the matter," Mr Weis said.

Separate meetings of defence ministers are also a possibility. Up until now, they could meet only twice a year together with foreign ministers, or informally whenever a rotating presidency felt the need for organising such a gathering.

Ms Ashton's schedule, however, already filled with foreign trips, weekly European Commission meetings and monthly foreign affairs councils, makes it rather unlikely that defence ministerials will be held more frequently and in a separate format.

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