For years, Polish soldiers have been present in many regions of conflict in the world. They have served in European states, in Africa, and in the Middle East. Their participation in missions has radically changed our army. For the better.
It was the fall of 1990. ORP Wodnik had recently come back from a training cruise on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The ship, with a crew of officer cadets of the Polish Naval Academy (Akademia Marynarki Wojennej, AMW) had gone as far as Poti Seaport in Georgia. After their return, the crew had barely had a chance to catch their breath, when they got a message: “Get ready, you’re going to the Persian Gulf.”
A Turning Point
On August 1990, the eyes of the world turned towards Kuwait. On that day, at dawn, this small state, which is nevertheless very rich in oil, was attacked by Iraq. After a devastating war with Iran, Saddam Hussein needed resources to revitalize the economy. He thought a local conflict would go unnoticed, as the world powers were struggling with their own problems at the time. It did not go unnoticed, though. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions on Iraq, and called Hussain to withdraw his forces. When he failed to obey, the UNSC authorized the USA to build an international military coalition. Time was of the essence, since the actions of the Iraqi dictator seemed to imply he intended to go further and attack Saudi Arabia, i.e. the USA’s main ally in the region.
The Gulf War was also the main topic in the Polish media, but we did not think at the time we would directly support Americans and engage in resolving the conflict. “Poland was still a member of the Warsaw Pact at the time,” reminds Grzegorz Ciechanowski, PhD, Institute of Political Science and Security Studies of the University of Szczecin, the author of many publications on the participation of the Polish army in foreign missions.
Regardless of the political situation in Poland, a contingent of one hundred Polish military medics was soon sent to Saudi Arabia, and two ships set off from Gdynia to the Persian Gulf – Wodnik and ORP Piast. Wodnik was turned into a medevac ship, and ORP Piast, having been additionally equipped with anti-aircraft armament, was to cover Wodnik. In the Persian Gulf, the ships patrolled waters in the vicinity of the coast of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. “The conditions were hard. Saddam Hussain had ordered his people to release oil from Kuwaiti pipelines to the sea. The oil was set on fire in some places. At times, it was difficult to see the sun through the thick black smoke,” recalls Capt (Res) Zdzisław Żmuda, the Captain of ORP Wodnik, as well as a team of ships.
The war lasted for two months only. It ended in a major victory of the coalition forces. For the Polish Armed Forces, the participation in the mission, although symbolic, was a real turning point. One of a few that would entirely change the face of our army in the upcoming decades.
Our Place Is in NATO
It was not the first foreign mission for Polish soldiers. Already in 1953, Poland sent observers to Korea. They were a part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), which was to check if the two Korean states abide by the armistice. Later, there were many more missions under the auspices of the UN – from Egypt, through Syria, to Namibia. “They definitely enabled our armed forces to collect many different experiences. However, a completely new reality began in 1989,” emphasizes Ciechanowski.
The Soviet empire started to burst at the seams, and the subordinate states gained more and more freedom. Soon, the communist system collapsed, and the Warsaw Pact with it. “Poland quickly turned to the West. I was a soldier myself in the 1990s. I was a young officer and I clearly remember that the middle level commanders were unanimous – Poland’s place was in NATO,” he recalls.
Being a part of the anti-Iraqi coalition became the first practical demonstration of this idea. The character of the gesture was however more political than military, not only due to the numerical strength of the Polish Military Contingent (PMC). The US Army used high-quality weapons and advanced communication devices, which allowed for conducting quick maneuver warfare. Polish soldiers could only dream of such equipment at the time. Effective cooperation with the new allies required introducing multiple changes: in equipment, procedures and mentality. The years that followed showed how important of a role missions had played in the development of our army.
Before Poland became a NATO member, it had already strongly marked its presence in the Balkans. At the start of the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up, and the peninsula plunged into a decade of continual wars. In order to settle the situation, the international community started to organize missions to the Balkans. In 1992, also a Polish contingent flew to Croatia, and after various transformations it stayed there for the next three years. It operated under the flag of the UN, and numbered 1,200 soldiers at its peak.
The mission in the Balkans was the first time in history when Poland sent out an operational battalion. The soldiers kept control posts between the territories occupied by the Croats and the Serbs, protected refugee camps, escorted humanitarian aid convoys. On several occasions, Polish checkpoints were shelled or forced to evacuate. The mission was over when the Croatian army defeated the Republic of Serbian Krajina during Operation Storm.
However, the Polish Armed Forces quickly returned to the Balkans. At the beginning of 1996, a Polish contingent was sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was to ensure that the Dayton Agreement, which put an end to the war, was complied with. The Polish soldiers were incorporated into NATO forces for the time of the operation, three years before Poland’s official accession. In 1999, Poland once again sent its soldiers to the Balkans – but this time as a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A contingent of 800 troops came to Kosovo to protect the civilians and supervise the demilitarization of a designated zone. Only a few weeks earlier, a bloody war fought between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Yugoslav forces ended there.
“During the mission in the Balkans, the Polish army proved it was able to quickly transform and cooperate with NATO partners. This capability was of key importance on our way to the membership in the Alliance,” emphasizes Col Robert Reczkowski, PhD, the Head of the Department of Military Operations Analysis at the Doctrine and Training Center of the Polish Armed Forces. The most important test, however, was yet to come.
On September 11, 2001, passenger planes hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It soon turned out that all traces related to the attack led to Afghanistan. The order to attack the USA was given from Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden, the leader of an international terrorist network. The fundamentalist Taliban government refused to extradite him, and that meant war.
Only a day after the 9/11 attacks, the North Atlantic Council decided that all the conditions were present to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. An attack on the American territory was in fact an attack on the entire Alliance, so all its members had to jointly take up arms against the aggressor. On October 7, Operation Enduring Freedom commenced. Polish soldiers also took part in the operation – in March 2002 almost 100 sappers, logisticians and GROM commandos arrived in Afghanistan. Their list of tasks was long – from clearing mines to providing logistical support to coalition units. ORP Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki, patrolling the waters of the Persian Gulf, was also part of the contingent.
The operation ended in breaking up the Taliban forces, which unfortunately did not mean peace returned to Afghanistan. Rebels started an insurgent war, regularly attacking coalition forces. Meanwhile, the Polish contingent was given entirely new tasks. In 2007, it changed its name to PMC ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and grew significantly. At its peak, over 2,500 soldiers served in the contingent. Almost 800 of them were part of Battle Group Poland, which ensured security in the provinces of Ghazni, Paktika and Paktia. Soon, the Polish Task Force was created and our soldiers took full responsibility for Ghazni.
The Polish Military Contingent played an equally significant role in Iraq. In 2003, another war began on its territory. An international coalition overthrew Saddam Hussain, suspected of supporting international terrorism and illegal possession of weapons of mass destruction. The country was divided into four stabilization zones. Poland took control of the South Central Zone, and the commanders of our military contingents for four consecutive years supervised Multinational Division Central-South. In the peak period, the division included soldiers from 22 states.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 2004, there was a Shia uprising led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the so-called Mahdi Army. Not a day went by without attacks on the coalition forces. This was the time of the famous fight for the City Hall in Karbala. Polish soldiers, supported by Bulgarian troops, spent several dozen hours protecting the building. Ultimately, they managed to fight off the attack. Several weeks later, Operation Iron Saber commenced. The American, Polish and Bulgarian troops successfully forced the rebels out of bigger cities, including Karbala and Najaf. Muqtada al-Sadr’s radicals, however, remained active for another four years.
All in Our Hands
Our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq was a milestone in the development of the Polish Armed Forces. “The main aim of missions is not to help soldiers gain experience. They are mainly a tool of obtaining political goals. A given state sends a contingent abroad not for the soldiers to learn, but to effectively execute tasks given to them,” clarifies Gen Rajmund Andrzejczak, the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces. “However, I am certain that without foreign missions the implementation of all the undertaken modernization programs would not have been possible,” he adds.
He also served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. During the first mission he was an operational officer, during the second one – a commander of a brigade combat team. Earlier, he also commanded a Polish contingent on the Golan Heights, so throughout his service he was able to witness the changes occurring in the Polish army. “I would divide them into two areas. The first one, more tangible, concerns things such as procedures, tactics, operational capabilities or equipment. The other one is connected with the soldiers’ mentality, their emotions, but also the change in the way of commanding troops,” he enumerates.
Gen Andrzejczak still remembers his first day in Afghanistan, the sight of helicopters flying away and the feeling that from that moment on, everything was in his own hands. Soldiers on training grounds fought with hypothetical enemies. Now, they were facing a very real one. They had to make quick decisions, as the price for faltering was not only safety, but often life. The challenges he had to face were also very demanding. “As a commander, I was responsible not only for military matters, but also for the cooperation with local authorities or projects connected with the economic development of the province. One day I had to plan the tasks for the special forces, and the next day I needed to deal with the lack of water in a village which was crucial to regional security,” emphasizes Andrzejczak.
Initially, the Polish soldiers in Afghanistan, or later in Iraq, were a bit overwhelmed by the technological predominance of the US forces. “However, on a closer look, it turned out that when it comes to military craftsmanship, we were trained as well as they were. Knowing that, we returned to Poland without any complexes,” says the general. Truth be told, the technological gap also began to decrease quite quickly.
A good example of changes in the army is the story of KTO Rosomak vehicles. At the beginning of both missions, the soldiers used Honkers and Hummers, but it quickly turned out they did not provide enough protection from IED explosions, and their fire power was too weak. In May 2007, the Polish Military Contingent received the first batch of 24 Rosomaks. However, there were some corrections to be made. The vehicles had to be fitted with additional armor. After the modifications, they became a real threat to the insurgents. There were more similar novelties in the army, such as the modernization of combat helicopters, which were fitted with, i.a., more powerful engines and devices that allowed for carrying out operations at night. The soldiers also got new personal equipment, including helmets, sights, vests and rifles.
“Participation in missions raised our soldiers’ awareness of the extremely complex character of the modern battlefield. The army started working on the development of new and perfection of already possessed operational capabilities. Training began to focus on realism and interoperability, i.e. ability to cooperate with the allies. Important changes were also introduced in logistics. Participation in programs such as SALIS [Strategic Airlift International Solution] or SAC [Strategic Airlift Capability] increased our capability to quickly redeploy forces to the area of operation, but also to withdraw them,” enumerates Col Reczkowski, PhD.
There is more. “Combat missions laid the basis for creating a professional corps of NCOs and privates in the Polish Armed Forces,” says SSWO Andrzej Woltmann, a senior NCO at the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, who served in Iraq and took part in the battle of City Hall. Before 2008, the year when the Polish army discontinued drafting people and began the process of full professionalization, soldiers of the extended military service went to missions next to officers and higher level NCOs. It was often hard to find volunteers. “Undoubtedly, it is crucial that such important tasks are executed by people who are not only well trained but also have faith in the cause they are fighting for. Taking part in a mission is a great responsibility. A local conflict can be instigated not only by a general or a colonel, but also by a young NCO or a private who sits in a carrier and at a moment of high tension cannot keep their nerves in check,” says SSWO Woltmann. In the professional army, which had additionally gained plenty of experience during missions, the importance of NCOs increased. “We started to have greater influence on the way training is conducted, for example,” emphasizes Woltmann.
The decisions to send Polish contingents to Afghanistan or Iraq were never easy. Public opinion polls showed that a vast part of the society was against it. In 2009, such opinion was still expressed by 76% respondents, according to the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS). “If you ask my opinion, we lacked a widespread information campaign, indicating our goals and presenting how much we had gained,” thinks Reczkowski. It is undeniable that the costs of fulfilling our obligations to the Alliance were significant, and soldiers died during the missions – a total of almost 70 in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it comes to finances, Poland spent 6 billion zlotys on the functioning of the Afghan contingent just up to the year 2015. In Iraq, the plans of economic expansion did not bring much success.
However, the benefits of missions are also undisputable, and they are much more extensive than just the impulse to modernize the army. “Poland has proved to the other NATO members that it is a trustworthy partner and it can bring a lot into the global security system,” emphasizes Reczkowski. In fact, Poland is still proving its worth. “Recently, the North Atlantic Alliance has revised the rules of its functioning. It is giving up expeditionary operations for the benefit of activities connected with collective defense. The time of grand missions has passed, but the activity of the Polish army has not ended,” thinks Reczkowski.
Jump into Different Reality
Polish soldiers are still present in many parts of the world, such as the southern and the eastern flank of NATO, reinforced due to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. In Latvia, Polish tank crews have strengthened a battle group operating within the frame of enhanced Forward Presence (eFP). In Romania, mechanized detachments equipped with Rosomaks have formed a part of a multinational brigade. “These missions bring with them enormous political and strategic responsibility. Due to the aggressive attitude of Russia, our soldiers are practically on the front line there,” emphasizes Gen Andrzejczak.
Maj Krzysztof Słowik of the 17th Mechanized Brigade, the commander of the 7th rotation of PMC in Romania, admits that the tasks carried out by his men during the mission were not different from the ones they execute in Poland. Trainings were organized in cooperation with Romanian troops. A separate component in the form of a motorized company with a logistics subunit was created in order to support NATO allied forces. “At that moment we became Poland’s ambassadors, as the mission in Romania was not only training, but also demonstrating the presence of Polish soldiers and the Polish flag, if only while taking part in official ceremonies,” he emphasizes. However, the most important part was training, made harder by the coronavirus pandemic. “Despite the disturbances, we managed to do a lot. We sent our Rosomaks to the Cincu Training Area, for example. There, together with the Romanian soldiers, we practiced shooting in attack, in defense, delaying operations. In fact, the redeployment of the column to the training area was an excellent exercise itself. The distance from Craiova, where we were stationing, to Cincu, was 250 km, most of which were the winding, Carpathian roads,” recalls Maj Słowik.
Polish activity is not limited to the eastern flank, though. Fairly recently, the F-16 crews engaged in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. They carry out reconnaissance flights within Operation Inherent Resolve. Polish soldiers are also constantly present in Afghanistan, where Operation Resolute Support (RSM) began after the end of the ISAF mission. The mission focuses on providing training and consultations, but Polish soldiers still carry out patrolling tasks, and they still have to be ready for the worst scenario. Although Afghanistan has changed throughout the years, and attacks on foreign soldiers rarely occur, the social and political situation is still very complicated. “The mission in Afghanistan remains quite challenging to our soldiers,” admits Col Daniel Butryn, the Commander of the 12th rotation of PMC RSM.
Witnessing a Tragedy
The army is also expanding the area of its operation. Several years ago, Europe was struggling with an immigration crisis. Illegal immigrants were coming to the continent in great numbers, mostly across the Mediterranean Sea. One of the routes led from Libya, a country immersed in a civil war. There were organized groups that offered to smuggle people. For a hefty fee, they put immigrants in small boats and sent them across a vast sea, putting their lives in great danger. In order to take control of the chaos that ensued, the European Union initiated Operation Sophia. Poland joined the operation in 2018, sending a contingent created by the Naval Aviation Brigade to Sicily. The soldiers flew a Bryza aircraft and their main task was to patrol key routes between Libya and Italy.
“For me, the greatest challenge was to set up from scratch the place where we were to be stationed. Pilots had to work in conditions that were completely new to them. They had to patrol an unknown, vast body of water for many hours at a time. We had all wondered how we were going to handle that, but it turned out we got the gist of it very quickly,” recalls LtCdr Cezary Kurkowski, the Commander of the 1st rotation of PMC Sophia. The soldiers concentrated on reports, procedures, tasks. “In the back of our minds, however, we knew we were in one of those places which the whole world was watching; that there was a terrible tragedy taking place right in front of our eyes,” says Kurkowski. As time went by, the traffic of immigrants on the route from Libya was becoming lighter. In the spring of 2020, Operation Sophia was replaced with Operation Irini. Polish troops are still stationing in Sicily and flying over the Mediterranean Sea. Now, however, their tasks are different. They are mainly to watch if the embargo on delivering arms to Libya is complied with.
After a break of ten years, Polish soldiers have also returned to UN missions. In November 2019, the first contingent of PMC Lebanon was sent out. The soldiers formed a part of a Polish-Irish battalion ensuring security in the so-called Blue Line region, separating Lebanon and Israel. “We were going to the mission aware that Polish soldiers had done a lot of good there earlier, and we had to live up to that reputation,” recalls LtCol Paweł Bednarz, the Commander of the 1st rotation. Initially, the soldiers had to learn to operate according to UN procedures, which are different than those valid during, for example, NATO missions. “There are many issues that have to be considered: from the rules of using weapons to the way of organizing transport to a given destination,” explains Bednarz. During the mission, the soldiers patrolled the buffer zone, but also taught classes at schools or dealt with distributing humanitarian aid resources.
“When it comes to sending soldiers to missions, Poland is very active, and it will likely remain active in the future,” thinks Ciechanowski. “The army helps to build a positive image of the state, which is extremely important, especially when we consider Poland’s geopolitical location. We need to show our solidarity in order to be able to count on solidarity when we need it,” concludes the expert.
Co-Author: Magdalena Miernicka
When the number of wounded soldiers returning from foreign missions began to increase, it became necessary to organize a support system for them. The participation of Polish soldiers in two missions in particular – in Iraq and Afghanistan – was a breakthrough point. Halfway through the missions, the first law concerning veterans was passed. It granted many rights, particularly to soldiers who had been wounded while operating outside Poland. Today, veterans with injuries have, i.a., access to free medicines, rehabilitation, preferential access to specialist healthcare and hospitals, priority in employment at units subordinate to the Ministry of National Defense, or grants for education. Moreover, due to the recent change in the attitude of the society towards soldiers taking part in missions, an increasing number of companies and businesses express their support for veterans by offering them various discounts.
There are also important initiatives undertaken by state institutions and non-governmental organizations, which aim to integrate and activate the veteran environment. Notably, these initiatives are directed to all veterans, many of whom have a great need to meet their fellows from missions, get a chance to relieve negative emotions in order to cope with experiences that not many other people have had. That is why we put a lot of emphasis on such projects in the activity of the Veteran Center.
Col Szczepan Głuszczak is the Director of Centrum Weterana Działań poza Granicami Państwa (Foreign Operations Veteran Center)
Polish Soldiers are currently taking part in ten international missions:
1. PMC Iraq – 9th rotation. The contingent numbers 350 soldiers. They help Iraqi people to rebuild their defensive capabilities and organize trainings on repairing and operating post-Soviet equipment and armament.
2. PMC RSM Afghanistan – 13th rotation. The contingent numbers up to 400 soldiers, executing tasks within Operation Resolute Support (RSM). The mission started right after the end of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) stabilization mission. Its aim is to advise and assist.
3. PMC Romania – 8th rotation. The contingent numbers 250 soldiers and is a part of NATO’s tailored Forward Presence (tFP) forces. Polish soldiers train with allied forces, demonstrating the presence of NATO on the southern flank of the Alliance.
4. PMC KFOR Kosovo – 43rd rotation. The contingent numbers up to 300 soldiers and executes tasks as part of the Multinational Battle Group East. Poles are to ensure compliance with contracts and treaties, and by that guarantee safety to the inhabitants of the territory where they are stationing. To that end, they take part in patrols with the Kosovo police or organize control points on roads in border regions.
5. PMC Latvia – 8th rotation. The contingent numbers up to 200 soldiers. Its core is an armored detachment, a part of a Multinational Battle Group within NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) created by Canada. Polish soldiers take part in joint exercises with allied forces, demonstrating the presence of NATO on the eastern flank of the Alliance.
6. PMC EUFOR Bosnia and Hercegovina – 20th rotation. The contingent numbers 50 soldiers and acts within the frame of the European Union Military Operation (EUFOR ALTHEA). The executed tasks include: providing training and advice to Bosnia’s armed forces, organizing humanitarian aid, supporting local authorities in the implementation of peace treaties.
7. PMC EUTM RCA – Central African Republic (RCA) – 9th rotation. The contingent numbers two soldiers. They are taking part in a European Union military mission. Its aim is to train RCA’s armed forces.
8. PMC Irini – 3rd rotation. Another mission under the auspices of the European Union. The contingent numbers 80 soldiers and is stationing at Base Sigonella in Sicily. The core of the contingent is the Naval Aviation Brigade. The soldiers ensure that the embargo on arms deliveries to Libya is not violated and that oil is not illegally smuggled out of the state. Other tasks include monitoring routes that take illegal immigrants to Europe.
9. PMC UNIFIL Lebanon – 3rd rotation. The contingent numbers 250 soldiers and operates under the flag of the UN as part of an Irish battalion. Together they form IRISHPOLBATT. The tasks include monitoring the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, supporting the Lebanese government in keeping peace and security, and protecting civilians.
10. PMC Turkey – 1st rotation. The contingent can number up to 80 soldiers. Their task is mainly to monitor key shipping lanes on the eastern waters of the Mediterranean Sea and on the Black Sea. The mission is organized under the auspices of NATO.
autor zdjęć: st. sierż. Patryk Cieliński / Combat Camera DORSZ, US Navy, por. Robert Suchy