Dispatch

Poland’s ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in Afghanistan

A high-profile war crimes trial points out the dangerous divide between America and its allies on the ground in Afghanistan.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

GHAZNI, Afghanistan – Europe’s first war crimes trial involving the Afghanistan war concluded last month when a jury acquitted seven Polish soldiers of attacking civilians in eastern Paktika province in 2007. Ever since the soldiers were arrested on Nov. 13, 2007, "Nangar Khel Syndrome," named after the town where the incident occurred, has reportedly become the scourge of Poland’s soldiers in the Afghan arena. But the problem may be less a brothers-in-arms response to a single, unfortunate event and more a broad cultural difference between U.S. and European troops that threatens to undermine their ability to support the United States in Afghanistan and in future wars as well.

The travails of the Polish military may seem like a sideshow to the central action of the Afghanistan war, but Poland’s fighting ability still matters to its American allies. After President Barack Obama’s announcement that 10,000 U.S. soldiers will be withdrawn by the end of the year and the remainder of the "surge" troops will exit Afghanistan by next summer, Poland’s contingent of more than 2,000 troops will need to assume greater responsibility in the southeastern province of Ghazni. (After Obama’s announcement, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he would also ask his defense secretary to prepare a plan to reduce Polish troops in line with the U.S. drawdown, but he did not give specifics.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also asked Poland to contribute to the war in Libya, has griped about NATO’s "dim, if not dismal future" unless Europe increases its military capabilities. As a result, Europe’s political battles over the proper application of force promise to resonate as far afield as Washington and Kabul.

The Nangar Khel trial was, of course, an important look into a sad moment in the Afghanistan war. In August 2007, a Polish patrol is reported to have come under attack from a local village and returned fire with mortar rounds, one of which exploded inside a compound, killing six civilians, including a pregnant woman and some children. The defense claimed the casualties were an accident, but the prosecution painted the soldiers as killers looking for retribution after the death of the first Polish soldier in Afghanistan just a few days before. A national uproar ensued after the accused appeared in handcuffs on the covers of newspapers, alongside headlines that read: "Blood on the uniform."

Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich has defended the soldiers’ innocence since late 2007, and his ministry has poured several hundred thousand dollars into their defense. This year, Klich also issued a directive clarifying the law that guides the use of force by Polish troops.

"The worst thing before was that we never knew if we were right or not, according to the law, in using force," said Polish Brig. Gen. Slawomir Wojciechowski, commanding general of the Polish contingent in Afghanistan. "In the past, soldiers sometimes decided it was easier to be hurt or dead than to act and be potentially jailed because you reacted to something. It wasn’t fair to send people here without the proper rules of engagement. Now they have it."

But the whole process left Polish soldiers with a sour aftertaste. Many believed that they could no longer count on their leaders to protect them, and some critics said the accused low-ranking soldiers were being used as political pawns. As one Polish intelligence officer told me, "There’s a sense that American soldiers have lawyers for the purpose of defending them, while Polish soldiers have lawyers for the purpose of prosecuting them."

The result, at least anecdotally, has been a challenge to Polish resolve in the field. "When they are out in the open and being shot at, there were no issues: They will shoot back. It was when they were in the towns that they wouldn’t return fire," says Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicolae Bunea, who was part of a team of U.S. soldiers tasked with assisting Poland as it assumed control of Ghazni in 2008. "If there was even a chance of killing a civilian, they wouldn’t shoot."

Bunea, sometimes the lone American accompanying a Polish patrol, says there were engagements in which he was the only one who returned fire — and that the Nangar Khel prosecutions were the reason why. "I would try to explain to them, ‘You’re with me — if I shoot, you need to shoot too,’" says Bunea. "They were afraid of going to jail. They were always thinking about [Nangar Khel]. They would say, ‘You don’t understand — I go to jail if I kill people.’"

Clearly, Polish soldiers in Afghanistan were thinking about the trial and its repercussions when I visited in April and May. On a mission in late April in Ghazni, I overheard a Polish soldier cautioning his buddy to double-check the safety on his weapon: "Or it might be straight to Poznan for you."

The nervous chuckle in response belied what all soldiers fear: the military prison in the town of Poznan, Poland, where their comrades were held.

Klich said U.S. Army Col. Martin Schweitzer, who was then the Brigade Combat Team commander for seven battalions in the region, including the Polish battle group, told him at the time that American soldiers make similar mistakes far more frequently.

"Although they used different techniques and procedures than we would have used, from everything I’ve looked at and all the feedback I’ve gotten since this action occurred, I thought their actions were certainly within the realm of acceptable. It was not out of the norm," Schweitzer said on June 20. "It was proportional. They were taking lethal fire."

Schweitzer, now the deputy commander for operations of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, also expressed concern about the effects of the prosecution on Polish military morale.

"I absolutely appreciate government making sure that their soldiers perform in a way that represents their nation," he said. But "I was concerned that the reaction from the rest of the troops would be ‘Well then, we can’t go ahead and continue to separate the enemy from the people.’"

This sentiment was echoed by U.S. political officers who worked with the Polish contingent in Afghanistan. "They were being micromanaged by Warsaw," said Michael Keays, a U.S. State Department representative in Ghazni for most of 2008, who worked extensively with the joint U.S.-Polish provincial reconstruction team, which facilitated Polish-American cooperation in the region.

One U.S. Army captain who spent the past six months as a liaison officer with the Polish battle group in Ghazni said the Polish soldiers are now less inclined to report the use of lethal force. "They don’t always report their sig-acts," he explains, referring to "significant actions" involving loss of life. This has inevitably resulted in a string of Polish dispatches with "nothing to report."

While Poles and Americans both work and fight just as hard, the Nangar Khel affair and its legacy have highlighted a deep cultural divide when it comes to the lethal use of force.

When I joined a planned mission to seize a weapons cache in a restive nearby village in the Deh Yak district of Ghazni province, one U.S. platoon sergeant briefed his soldiers with: "If you see a fucking dude holding a weapon, you fucking hose him down!"

Meanwhile, on a mission to search a village in Waghez district, also near the Ghazni city center, the Polish platoon sergeant’s brief was far more circumspect: "If we receive fire, we return fire, but always remember these two things: positive identification of the target and proportional use of force."

"When I go home and tell people that I killed bad guys they look at me as though I am mentally ill. Like I need to be locked up," one Polish Army captain told me. "That’s why I like talking to the Americans. With them you can be honest about what you did and they will think you’re a great hero. They thank you for your service. The Polish people don’t understand this is what we’re sent here to do. They don’t want to hear it."

Dispelling "Nangar Khel Syndrome" will become increasingly vital as Obama proceeds with his plans for a troop drawdown. In fall 2010, a U.S. infantry battalion from Fort Knox deployed as part of the surge to the eastern districts of Ghazni province. These troops have seen constant fighting since their arrival, and it’s unclear whether they will be replaced after their deployment is up in October. If they aren’t, the Poles will be expected to pick up the slack.

A solid majority of Poles are opposed to the war in Afghanistan, which has soured them on the United States. But Poland resides both literally and figuratively between Russia and the West, and Brig. Gen. Wojciechowski voiced his hopes that Polish participation in the Afghanistan campaign would tie Warsaw closer to Washington and Brussels.

"I remember my colleagues at the U.S. Army War College.… I was always really surprised that they still saw me as a Warsaw Pact guy," he said, referring to the Soviet-era defense pact of communist states. "The Warsaw Pact has not existed for years, we are all NATO now and yet they still saw me as someone from behind the Iron Curtain. It just comes from lack of knowledge. The greatest achievement of our generation will be the day when they no longer refer to me as ‘former Warsaw Pact.’"

Poland has been the one mainland European country out front in the war on terrorism — but the split between U.S. and Polish forces on the ground indicates how far the alliance may still have to go. As Washington pushes other countries to help it complete a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should pay heed to the domestic consequences its allies are paying for their service.

U.S. military leaders speak effusively about Polish capability and motivation, but politicians on both sides often overlook what should otherwise be the next notable "special relationship" between the United States and Europe. Washington must not only win hearts and minds in Ghazni — it must win them in Warsaw too.

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