One of Poland’s top priorities after independence in 1989 was NATO membership.
But being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a two-edged sword.
On the one hand, it gives Poland military security that it has never had before. NATO rules say that if one member is attacked, all members will go that country’s defense.
But on the other hand, membership means that Polish troops must participate in NATO missions abroad. The alliance’s Partnership for Peace program sends troops overseas to deal with threats such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and energy security. Polish troops have been deployed in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq and in the Mediterranean. Afghanistan continues to be the country’s biggest mission.
About 1,200 soldiers are there. The mission is complicated, requiring a mix of fighting and nation-building skills. NATO troops in Afghanistan must not only try to ensure security and stability but also help with reconstruction of the country. The Nangar Khel tragedy underscores how difficult it has been for NATO forces to handle all facets of their difficult mission in Afghanistan. Seven Polish soldiers attacked the village of Nangar Khel in August, killing six unarmed civilians.
They face charges that could put them in prison for 12 years to life.
Although Polish troops had been in Iraq, their experiences were not automatically transferable to Afghanistan because different Muslim countries have different rules of conduct. The Nangar Kher case showed that many soldiers don’t recognize that a knowledge of and appreciation for local culture and religion can be keys to the success of their mission, analysts say. They maintain that if the Polish soldiers at Nangar Kher had had good working relationships with the locals, the tragedy might not have occurred.
The Defense Ministry now recognizes that troops not only need battlefield and military-intelligence preparation for an overseas mission but also specialized knowledge about the country where they are being deployed and psychological preparation.
NATO’s post-Cold War overseas missions are so-called “three-bloc” operations.
Soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan may have to perform combat tasks. They also may have to act as policemen. Plus, they become involved in humanitarian activities.
They need to be proficient in all three tasks – and that requires special training. Lack of such training probably played a key role in what happened in Nangar Khel, analysts say.
Although NATO has not offered precise information on its plans for staying in Afghanistan, indications are that the mission may last until at least 2020. The exact time frame is up in the air because it involves not only how much military success NATO is having but also winning the hearts and minds of the population.
Peacekeepers are dependent to a large extent on the goodwill of locals for success in both their military and humanitarian missions. That goodwill also helps ensure their safety. A Nangar Khel-type breakdown can destroy that goodwill.
The goodwill lesson applies not only to Iraq and Afghanistan, but other places as well. In January, Polish soldiers will be deployed to Chad. Becoming peacekeepers in that country’s civil war may be the most difficult overseas mission Poles have faced.
About 150 Poles will be going to Darfur as part of a multinational force whose task is to try to stop four years of violence there.
The start of the Chad mission will come a few months before Poland pulls its 897 troops from Iraq, fulfilling a promise that Prime Minister Donald Tusk made in his election campaign this fall.