INTERNATIONAL: The Polish Role in Afghanistan
© 2006 FrontLine Defence (Vol 3, No 6)

On 13 September 2006, the Polish Minister of National Defence, Radek Sikorski, announced that Poland would send an additional 1,000 troops to assist NATO’s ISAF force in Afghanistan. The deployment will be completed by February 2007, though advanced military units may be sent in earlier. The Polish contingent will be made up of the 17th Mechanized Brigade as well as the 18th Assault Battalion that will be ­stationed at Bagram air base.

There is already a 110-strong Polish Task Force (PKW) at the base. Of this number, 100 army engineers take part in Operation “Enduring Freedom” (OP-EF) and 10 participate in ISAF by manning the Bagram airport. In addition, about a dozen Polish officers serve in NATO Coalition Joint Task Force (CJTF) command posts.

Lifting the Caveats
There has been much discussion of late with regards to the various “caveats” which restrict the ability of some nations to assist their coalition partners during times of need. Poland has agreed to lift its caveats on the use of its contingent.

A Polish sapper engaged in demining tasks. It is said that one ­soldier’s life is sacrificed for every 1,000 mines cleared.

Though Polish operations will take place mainly in the eastern part of Afghanistan, deployment decisions will be adjusted in the course of the mission by the Polish government taking allied needs into account. Two Polish ­generals will assume senior command posts with ISAF. The deployment is ­scheduled to last one year and will cost the Polish budget an equivalent of $110 million CAD.

By the end of this year, Poland will have reinforced its personnel to a total of 190 soldiers and MoD personnel in Afghanistan. The additional soldiers and military personnel will serve in the Swedish-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mazar-e-Sharif and the ISAF Regional Command in this northern Afghan city. Poland is also, for the first time, sending armoured vehicles to Afghanistan to support its troops.

NATO’s Call
Not only did Poland respond to NATO’s call for reserves, it also stepped in to meet NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s plea for materiel assistance for the newly formed Afghan armed forces. Polish Defence Ministry is planning to offer the Afghan army some 13 of its surplus SKOT armoured personnel carriers, 2 BRDM armoured reconnaissance vehicles, 110 BWP-1 infantry combat vehicles as well as 10 million rounds of ammunition.

The NATO Secretary General called Poland’s deployment decision a “very important step” in the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan. Despite threats the Taliban posted on terrorist-related web sites soon after Poland made a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, Polish Government is determined to support NATO’s mission in that country.

Polish Military Police on patrol.

Fighting the Deadly Enemy
Situated 60 kilometres north of Kabul, in a 1,500 metre-high valley at the foothills of the 4,000m Hindukush mountains that separate northern and southern Afghanistan, the Bagram airport plays a strategic role in NATO operations. Control of the airport secures the airspace in the eastern part of Afghanistan. Polish troops have been deployed there since March 2002, to take care of engineering-sapper tasks.

The Polish Task Force, in addition to command element, is made up of three components. The first is an assault group composed of two assault sections (military units providing force protection); second is a platoon of engineers formed by two sappers groups, an engineering equipment unit, plus a logistical section; while the third component is a logistical unit.

The soldiers from “Camp White Eagle” have, in addition to mine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) responsibilities, helped perform engineering duties, including reconstruction of roads and bridges, building shelters and fortified barriers, conducting airfield damage repair and debris clearing.

Challenge of Bagram
Before NATO forces arrived, the Bagram airfield had been littered with wrecks of old Soviet weaponry, including old MIG-21, AN-26, AN-24 and IL 76 aircraft. It was also a gigantic minefield. The detection and clearing of mines and unexploded ordnance has proven extremely difficult due to the demanding terrain and weather conditions. Daytime temperatures in the shade hover around 40°C. As a result, mine clearing has been a slow, tortured process. An engineering patrol is able to clear 80-100m2 on a typical day, working usually in early morning and late afternoon. Notwithstanding these difficult conditions Poles have succeeded in discharging their duties.

Curious Afghan children stand on a site where a school is being built by Polish Humanitarian Organization NGO in the village of Koko Kheil in Kapisa province, eastern Afghanistan. When finished in December of this year, it will have 12 classrooms and accommodate 1,400 pupils.

Polish engineers removed wreckage from the Soviet-Afghan War and to-date have cleared more than 400,000m2 area of thousands of antipersonnel and anti-tank mines, mortar grenades, air bombs, and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.

They have had at their disposal minesweepers, including HYDREMA 910 Mine Clearing Vehicles, MINI-FLAIL remote-controlled demining machines, specialized bulldozers, and other engineering equipment. They have also used mine-detection dogs. Soldiers from the Special Units of the Military Police or the 2 Reconnaissance Regiment provided cover for sappers working in the field.

Polish troops have been transferring knowledge and experience (many of the PKW personnel have had previous peacekeeping experience in the Middle East) in mine clearance to Afghan colleagues. Hundreds of Afghan engineers have received demining training at Bagram.

Mine clearance, so far done without any losses on the Polish side, has earned the Polish military credit from the Allies. At a recent transfer of command ceremony, U.S. Colonel Michael Flanagan, commander of the OP-EF CJTF “Sword,” overseeing Polish troops, commented that “the best sappers at Bagram have come from Poland.”

The importance of this task cannot be stressed enough. Consider that there may be up to 10 million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Afghanistan. Each month, about 200 people’s lives or health are destroyed in mine-related accidents. To clear all mines may well take 30 years. This dangerous job must be done. Indeed, no reconstruction of Afghanistan is possible without a mine-free environment.

Winning Hearts and Minds
The Polish Task Force in Afghanistan has been helping the Afghan people in other direct ways. Touched by the dire living conditions of 150 children at an orphanage in the village of Charikar, about 23 kilometres from Bagram, Polish soldiers moved quickly to provide assistance. They have handed out gifts of food, warm clothing, toys and school supplies to children and their guardians. Army electricians have boosted electricity generation in the orphanage. As a result, the children that our Polish soldiers have been looking after may enjoy heat in the winter and an evening light. The orphanage building was also repaired. Last December, with the help of Slovak and American colleagues Polish soldiers were able to raise enough money at Bagram to buy 150 hats and the same number of pairs of gloves and socks for the orphans. They gave them to the ­children on the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Adha. This also illustrates the sensitivity shown by Poles to Afghan customs.

Polish engineers have also dug wells for Afghan villagers, who otherwise would have used water from streams at a high risk of catching disease.

Pictured above, in Iraq, the Polish Defence Minister, Radek Sikorski, and Major-General Piotr Czerwi´nski (right), then commander of the Multinational Division Central-South. Minister Sikorski knows Afghanistan first-hand from his years ­covering the war against Soviets as a journalist among Afghan freedom fighters. Below, Iraqi troops disembark from a Polish Mi-24 helicopter while training under Polish supervision. Experience in this area highlights Poland’s readiness to help train members of the Afghan Army.

Poland has been helping Afghan people ever since the Taliban have been ousted from power. Initially, in 2002, Polish NGOs – the main deliverers of aid – focused on providing medication to ­displaced Afghans living in refugee camps on the Pakistani side of the border, arranging makeshift maternity wards and training local medical staff. During this time, Polish aid workers also supplied books to the Kabul University.

In 2004, Afghanistan was designated a critical ­priority area in the provision of Polish development aid. The value of Foreign Ministry financing for projects carried out by Polish NGOs in Afghanistan has been increasing annually. In 2004, the Ministry committed an equivalent of C$157,000 for three major projects, related to the restoration of the Kabul School of Agriculture and emergency medical service in Mazar-e-Sharif. In 2005 three new projects were completed, for a total of $328,000. These included the development of diagnostic medical infrastructure in Mazar-e-Sharif, the building of a school for Afghan girls in the Balkh province, and a rebuilding of another school in the Kapisa province.

This year, Poland will provide C$627,000 for three projects spearheaded by Polish NGOs. These are the building of a hospital operating wing in Mazar-e-Sharif, the construction of a school complex, and the restoration of water services in some parts of the country. Next year, Poland plans to spend about $1,5 million dollars on projects in health care, education, governance and work undertaken by PRTs.

Poland supports the fight against drugs cultivation and trafficking in Afghanistan. In 2005 it pledged $10,000 USD to support the work carried out in Afghanistan by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which helps deny terrorists income from opium poppies.

Polish soldiers participate in target practice in Afghanistan – there to help, but ready to fight.

Building mutual respect is an important part of the Polish approach to reconstruction of Afghanistan. On one hand, quite a few Afghans in the past received their university education in Poland, so they are aware and respectful of Poles.

Some Afghans have chosen to stay in Poland. Polish soldiers, for example, benefit immensely from the help provided by one such Polish-Afghan who serves in the Polish contingent as an interpreter.

Polish people, on the other hand, have high regard for freedom-loving Afghans. They remember that the Taliban was not the first to try bring extremism into Afghanistan. Such an effort was made earlier – in 1979 – when the Soviet Union tried to impose communist dictatorship. The brave resistance of the Afghan people against communists, at a time when the Independent Trade Union Solidarity was being born in Poland, won them respect among Poles. That resistance, for which Afghans paid a heavy price, was witnessed first hand by none other than the current Polish Minister of Defence, Radek Sikorski. In 1985-87 he spent time among the Afghan freedom fighters covering the war as a journalist.

The Imperative of Allied Solidarity
Poles, who throughout history have taken up arms under the traditional rallying cry “For Your Freedom and Ours” know the value of solidarity, and that is why – as minister Sikorski underlined – they want NATO to support Afghanistan in its road to freedom. That is also why, when Canadian soldiers, our soldiers (from Poland’s NATO member state’s point of view), are being killed by terrorists, the solidarity imperative necessitates Polish support for the ISAF.

In addition to its ­commitment in Afghanistan, Poland currently has about 2,500 soldiers deployed in 17 peacekeeping operations worldwide. The largest, an 873-strong contingent – part of the Polish-led Multi­national Division Centre-South (MND CS) – helps to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.
Eighteen Polish soldiers lost their lives on Iraqi soil – the largest military losses suffered by Poland since World War II. Polish commitment to bringing stability and democracy to long-oppressed people however remains unflinching.

Poland believes that the ­success of reforms being implemented by Hamid Karzai’s ­government, including the strengthening of central governance, revamping of the security sector and economic recovery, depends foremost upon the restoration of security and stability – a task in which NATO continues and will continue to play a vital part.

This year’s decision to expand NATO’s activities into eastern and southern Afghanistan, thus covering its entire territory, should contribute to achieving ISAF strategic objectives. Canadians know best how fragile the situation in parts of Afghanistan remains. Especially dangerous are the suicide attacks carried out by Al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents.

Polish soldiers at Bagram have also come under gunfire, mortar or rocket attacks. Improvised explosive devices have been planted on patrol routes around the base.

Demining near Bagram.

These experiences provide all the more reason to ensure a steadfast commitment from the international community. In addition to NATO, an unwavering commitment from the EU, UN, and the many NGOs is required to secure a future for the Afghan people.

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan – in my view, one of the most important operations in the history of the Alliance – is indeed a test of its credibility, and it must pass the test. The terrorists must get the message that NATO is serious and will finish the job – one that is quite frankly as much about ensuring security in Afghanistan as it is about enhancing Allied security. Hence, Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga told the UN in September that Polish deployment in Afghanistan is in large degree a way of ensuring Polish security.

NATO allies are doing valuable work in Afghanistan. They have developed very good ties with the Afghan people and their presence helps reinforce stability in the region.

Two years ago, Polish troops in Bagram had a special opportunity to ­witness a craving for normalcy by Afghan people. A team of allied soldiers played a soccer match with the best Afghan team from the Parwan province. The Afghan players won 3:1. In retrospect, the score does not matter.

What is important is that this was the first soccer game played in Parwan in 25 years. Large crowds of Afghans cheered on the players. If this is what normalcy feels like, then this sense of fair play, sportsmanship, and bonding may be a taste of the kind of Afghanistan that NATO Allies are helping to rebuild after the dark ages of Taliban rule.

His Excellency Piotr Ogrodzi´nski is the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Canada.
© FrontLine Defence 2006