The Waiting Game

MARCIN ANDRZEJ PIOTROWSKI — For Poland, like many European nations, Afghan policy will be put on hold until after the United States gets the White House in order.


For new NATO member states — like Poland — memories of the Cold War in Eastern Europe shaped their image of the Alliance. Were leaders in these countries prepared to engage in a conflict far outside any previous scope of operations? 

I started my career in 1999, a few months after Poland’s accession to NATO. That was a time when a majority of the high level decision makers in the Polish government were very satisfied and enthusiastic about the future of NATO and Poland’s role contributing to that future. That was the time just after the successful campaign in Kosovo, and there was great support for the idea of out-of-area operations, although most analysts and members of the Ministry of Defense thought that such operations would be limited to the Balkans, the Caucuses, and the “near-abroad” of the enlarged European Union and NATO.

Of course, everything changed after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Poland was always in favor of balanced missions for NATO. It supported the traditional notion of collective defense but also understood the new needs — from the US perspective — for out-of-area missions as part of NATO doctrine and practice.

In the interview with Geoffrey Garrett of the University of Sydney, he noted that Eastern Europeans entered the Afghanistan War largely to maintain a friendly relationship with the Americans, their only protector against Russia. Was this fear the primary pressure for many Eastern European states in 2001 to enter Afghanistan?

I would agree with this analysis, although this fear was even more important for the Baltic states when they joined NATO. There are some caveats, though, that should be considered. Polish public opinion immediately after 9/11 sided very strongly with the attacked Americans; it was very popular in the media to argue that — according to NATO’s Article 5 — it was Poland’s ally that was attacked by the terrorists, and that they posed a very new type of threat. In the beginning  of the conflict, at least in Poland, there was a very strong sense of shock and solidarity with the Americans, more so than any cold, strategic calculations regarding the Russian threat. Many leaders in Poland felt that the attacks had ushered in a very different, new world, and there was a nervousness about this reality.

In Poland the strong strategic and military worries about the Russians renewed only after the Georgian war in 2008. During the time from September 2001 to August 2008, Poland’s security planning community was not very concerned about the threat from Russia; and even more broadly, the major contingency planning amongst NATO about the defense of Eastern Europe only started in earnest again after the war in Georgia.

In 2011, Robert Gates noted pessimistically that unless European nations bolster their military capabilities, NATO would face a “dismal future.” What might be the implications of Europe’s political battles over the proper application of force for Washington and Kabul?

I am a great admirer of Mr. Gates, and I think his speech in 2011 was a serious warning for the many European NATO states, although I am not sure any learned the lessons it preached. It is important to also note that Poland is in a very different position than other central and western European nations because it managed to survive the global economic crisis, maintaining growth throughout. Most importantly in this case, it maintained its pre-crisis level of military spending: two percent of GDP. Yet, amongst many analysts thinking about European security, there is a great concern about the security of the Baltic states; they felt very painfully the economic crisis and have limited military options. This reality could necessitate a reconsideration of NATO’s ability to provide for collective security in this region, and for out-of-area operations.

As for the implications of these different situations in Afghanistan, many Europeans are content to wait for the US to take the initiative there. The problem in Poland specifically is again slightly different from what it is in other European countries. Poland’s contribution since 2001 to the Afghanistan ISAF mission was limited. A few advisors, intelligence officers, and chemical weapons specialists were sent to ISAF: Roughly 90-100 troops. Separately, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Poland sent its elite special forces unit “GROM” units. They worked in the field with the American JSOC units. That was a rather covert operation, and for some time was not very well known by the general public.

Poland was, however, very engaged in the Iraq mission in 2003. Essentially, there was never any pressure by the US to commit greater numbers of Polish troops to Afghanistan. Between 2003 and 2007, Poland kept 2,000-3,000 troops in Iraq. At that time the Bush Administration was quite enthusiastic about the so-called “Coalition of the Willing,” and thus Poland’s efforts were more strategically focused on the war in Iraq. Poland’s real adventure in Afghanistan only started in March 2007 when it contributed a much higher number of troops to the ISAF mission in Kandahar and Ghazni provinces.

In many ways, the Afghanistan War became the United States’ forgotten war, as it was overshadowed by the war in Iraq. In Poland, and other NATO member states that committed troops to the Iraq War, what role did Afghanistan assume as it continued?

It is surprising that even in 2006, when the situation in Iraq was very bad and there was a threat of full scale civil war, there was still a high level of public support in Poland for the continuing operations there. Afghanistan was a forgotten war by the Americans, and was not taken seriously by NATO. Yet the situation presents a strange paradox for Poles. When Poland began to withdraw its troops from Iraq and step-by-step enlarge its presence in Afghanistan, Polish public opinion began to show very negative attitudes towards the ISAF mission, although previously attitudes had been in favor of Iraqi operations. It is important to remember that at the same time as this shift was occurring, Poland was experiencing a change in its government. To follow the Polish opinion of the Afghanistan War, it is crucial to also follow the different governments in Warsaw, although even these governments present a contradiction: It is interesting that the contribution to the Iraq mission was promoted by the leftist Social Democratic Government, even when similar leftist administrations across Europe were opposed to the Iraq War.

In his March 1999 speech regarding Poland’s entry into NATO, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Bronislaw Geremek declared that Poland “shall contribute substantially to bolstering the organization and to developing its political and military strengths.” How did the 9/11 attacks and subsequent Afghanistan invasion test Poland’s commitment to these ideals?

The 9/11 attacks changed many things in Poland. The Social Democratic Government which came into power in 2001 was notably pro-American. It tried to build some kind of special relationship with the US, and that is why it contributed Polish special forces to OEF, limited its contribution to the ISAF mission in Kabul, and contributed so strongly to Iraq. In 2005, however, there was another election in which the Social Democrats lost. The new Christian Democrat (PiS) Government tried to balance the contributions to both wars, and they put a greater deal of effort into considering the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. This shift was tied to the deterioration of Polish public opinion about moving soldiers to Afghanistan.

In your paper, Stabilization of Afghanistan: Internal Problems and Regional Dimension, you write that “Although there is still broad political, military and economic assistance coming to Afghanistan from Europe, all the problems with American leadership in the ISAF mission might raise doubts among the Europeans concerning the rationale for this type of engagement after 2014.” How has European opinion of American operations evolved throughout the conflict?

For many years Europeans thought that Afghanistan was the right war, and asked Americans to put more resources into it and contribute more to the conflict there. When the Obama Administration was elected and started to change the US strategic focus, there were different reactions amongst the Europeans. Poland’s contribution remained heavy; almost 3,000 troops were sent to Ghazni Province. Even though the war was not as popular as it once was — as evinced by the declining public and support and the sense that many Polish politicians had grown weary of the conflict as well — because it was a NATO mission and because Poland came together with the NATO community, Poland would remain committed to operations in Afghanistan. There are still people within the highest levels of Poland’s government that remain committed to Afghanistan, and that situation is largely independent of which party is in power.

The question is really what will be the role for NATO after 2014, during the so-called “period of transformation” in the next decade? This role will hinge on the results of the US Presidential elections in 2012, and the policies of whichever American candidate comes to power. After the end of combat operations in December 2014, will there remain some sort of training mission, comprised of a “coalition of the willing?” It is hard to tell. Until the end of this year, most of Europe is waiting for the US to decide on its leadership.

You served as the Polish Liaison to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP). How did the American leadership interact and negotiate with foreign diplomats with relation to Afghanistan?

This international group on Afghanistan of which I was a member was largely the idea of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. There was certainly a need for a forum of that type, but for some time it was problematic. Mr. Holbrooke tried to take all the brightest people from across the US Administration to his bureau, and his attempts led to a time of confusion. For smaller European countries it was important to attend regular meetings and briefings. But for me, who was responsible for monitoring US policy regarding the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem, it was critical to be in touch with other US agencies, the Pentagon, and the US State Department regarding many issues which were important for bilateral policy.

Yet, the whole set-up was really a one man show. Ambassador Holbrooke had a vision, and his organization largely followed it. I think the situation was also somewhat problematic for the US administration because on the one hand there is a decision-making process that usually goes through the National Security Council (NSC), but on the other hand there was this diplomatic “star” in the State Department acting independently of the NSC. Yet, the SRAP was important; every four months there were special meetings of the representatives, and these allowed me to work on a bilateral basis with Ambassador Holbrooke’s  bureau. Yet, I received most of my inputs and notes on US strategy in Afghanistan from other parts of the US government.

I think that the Polish mission always was well received in Washington and got excellent cooperation. Poland’s special representative to “Afpak,” Jacek Najder — who is now the Polish Ambassador to NATO and previously served as the first Polish ambassador in Kabul after 2001 — had very good chemistry and was in regular touch with Ambassador Holbrooke, and then with his successor, Ambassador Marc Grossman. Our mission appreciated the importance of this relationship, but ultimately as long as Ambassador Holbrooke remained the US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, policy mostly followed his vision. This dynamic changed after Mr. Holbrooke was succeeded by Ambassador Grossman, who unlike his predecessor is now trying to keep a much lower profile.

The fallout from the 2007 Nangar Khel trial in which seven Polish soldiers were accused of killing Afghanis during a mortar attack has led to what some analysts describe as Poland’s “Vietnam syndrome.” As a result, Polish troops have become increasingly unwilling to fight for fear of being sent to prison, although American soldiers make similar mistakes far more often. Does the Polish soldiers’ response illustrate a broader cultural difference between the way in which American and European leaders interpret their military role in Afghanistan?

The Nangar Khel trial not only had an impact on Polish military operations in the field, but also a significant impact on domestic politics in Warsaw. There were many politicians in Poland who said that the tragedy was used by then-Minister of National Defense Aleksander Szczygło as some kind of a pretext for shaking up “military opposition” to the civilian government. The incident was certainly exaggerated. The Nangar Khel tragedy has not changed the attitude towards the war.

My sense is that the Poland was still not, as problematic a military contributor to the fighting in Afghanistan as other European countries in the NATO, who often refused to fly their aircraft at night or participate in combat missions. It was always a tough reality in Afghanistan for military commanders. Yes, the tragedy was felt among the soldiers, but it was not such a caveat to operations that it negatively affected all Polish military operations in Ghazni.

Recent gains in the fight and reintegration of Taliban into Afghan society can in many ways be attributed to ISAF military operations. Yet, with the impending deadline of a 2014 withdrawal, and an Afghan security apparatus still in its infancy, is it reasonable to expect greater dissolution rather than stability?

Nobody knows the answer to this question for sure. My sense is that yes, it is reasonable to expect a deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal or limitation of US troops there. The question that is most pressing again is what will be the American plans after 2014? Another interesting question is what will be the policy of the next US administration, and how will these plans affect Poland in Afghanistan? I would expect that there will be serious debate — which has been lacking for many years — about Afghanistan and the ISAF mission. Public opinion is strongly in favor of the withdrawal, and many policymakers are now trying to examine the effects of this decision from all different angles of the conflict. NATO will remain as part of a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, but it is still uncertain as to the scale and nature of this continued contribution after 2014. I do not expect any serious announcement or strategic review on this question until the end of this year, from the US side. Once this review is released, then there will be serious debate in Poland and across Europe about details of future operations.


MARCIN ANDRZEJ PIOTROWSKI is an analyst in the International Security Programme of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, specializing in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He is a former diplomat and Polish Liaison to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and to the Secretariat of the International Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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