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You Forgot Poland

The following are excerpts from an article by Juliusz Ćwieluch and Wawrzyniec Smoczyński [what a name!] that appeared on October 25, 2008 in the popular Polish newsweekly Polityka:

“I was told about the attack a few hours before it started. It was at night, I got a call from vice-president Cheney” recalls [former Polish President] Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

It takes less than three weeks for American and British troops to reach Baghdad without encountering strong resistance. But Iraq is a large country, and instead of crowds hungry for democracy and human rights, the soldiers find themselves greeted by irksome attacks attributed to Saddam loyalists. The White House adjusts the plan of action on the fly, and President Bush declares that democratization has to be preceded by stabilization. In order not to make it look like the Americans are occupying the country, Washington decides to hand over half the country to its closest allies: the British and the Poles.

In Poland, the idea of having our own sector elicits a mixture of incredulity and delight. We 'select' a calm region between Basra and Baghdad [...] But it will require two thousand soldiers, not two hundred, to control an area a quarter the size of Poland and the three million people scattered across it. The Polish government graciously agrees, but under one condition: the Americans are going to have to foot the bill. And so we find ourselves renting out the Polish flag, with the Polish mission imperceptibly changing from a volunteer one to a mercenary one.

With some1600 Polish entrepreneurs already picturing the treasures of the desert in their mind's eye, it becomes all the easier for us to assume the role of the occupier. The Lucznik company wants to equip the Iraqi Army with rifles, Stalexport wants to lay rail, Bumar would like to build a railroad from Kuwait to Iran, and Mostostal, Budimex, and Energobudowa each want to build roads, bridges, housing complexes and ports. And everything is supposed to be easy. After all, there were forty thousand Polish workers and twenty-five joint ventures in Iraq back in socialist days. We will serve as the eyes and ears for the deaf and blind American companies.

[Foreign Minister] Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz baldly states the aims of our Iraq policy. “We would like for Polish petrochemical firms to finally have direct access to raw materials” says the head of Polish diplomacy. [Polish state oil company] Orlen and the Gdansk Refinery set up a consortium, although their drilling experience lies mainly in the Baltic sea, and Middle Eastern petroleum can't be processed by Polish refineries. Are they worried about the competition? With the help of the Polish government the Iraqis are sure to reward our soldiers' hard labor with a few contracts. After all, deals struck outside of Poland don't have to be all that honest.

Poland, in charge of the Multinational Division, grows in stature as a military power. It doesn't hurt that the first country to join the Multinational Divison is one that the average Pole would have trouble finding on a map - Fiji. "They gave us troops, and we had to arm them, feed them, and pay them a very high salary" recalls then-Defense Department head Janusz Zemke. "It turns out their entire army spends its time on these kinds of missions, which relieves Fiji from having to support it. It also reduces the risks of military coup, which has a certain history over there."

Following their experience in Afghanistan, the Americans know that if they leave logistics to the Poles it will be a year before they see the first Polish troops arrive in Iraq. So without being asked, they agree to take on responsibility for transporting, feeding and lodging the troops. They are even very flexible when it comes to money. “I asked the people in Washington how we were supposed to finance reconstruction of the province, pay our network of agents and repurchase arms from civilians. What I got back was a practical question - would eight tons of twenty-dollar bills be enough? The pallets with the cash were enough to fill an entire Hercules, but I can't tell you what the full amount was” confesses Zemke.


The Polish Army embarrassed itself in even the smallest things. Seats in our troop transports were set up so that soldiers sat facing one another. This made it easier for them to chat, and for the enemy to shoot them in the back. Naturally, the bulletproof vests the troops were issued only protected their chest. When the search began for the responsible parties in Poland, it turned out that the Army had been ordering this seating layout for fifty years without anybody complaining.

The only excuse for the mission organizers was the fact that leading the multinational division was basically a fiction. Whenever it was supposed to go into action, it would turn out that each country had some kind of limits on the use of its forces. One group could only shoot when it was over 50km from its base, another was only allowed to fight in self-defense, some commanders invented pretexts for inaction on the spot. "The Hungarians sent a transport batallion without any vehicles. When we gave them the vehicles, they still found excuses not to complete the tasks assigned to them. We had to cut off their water to get them to give in," said one member of the Defense Department who requested anonymity.


Meanwhile back in Poland, neocolonial hubris was giving way to resentment of our ally. The largest bid to include a Polish firm ended in scandal and total disaster. In February 2004, the state-owned Bumar firm lost a bid for a contract to equip 27 batallions of the Iraqi army. The contract was instead won by a mysterious consortium called Nour USA, whose subcontractor was an even more obscure Polish company called Ostrowski Arms. What would later turn out to be a four-person company with its headquarters in a Warsaw basement was supposed to provide Iraq with arms for 20 thousand soldiers. And its owner was not even licensed to trade arms overseas.

The Nour contract ended up being voided, but Bumar lost the second round of bids as well. As a consolation prize it received some smaller contracts for helicopters, ambulances, cisterns and handguns. But the scandals didn't stop. Iraq ordered 24 post-Soviet Mi-17 helicopters that Bumar overhauled at a rush pace in Russia, using a company belonging to an ex-KGB member. After inspecting the first seven units, the Iraqi delegation refused to take delivery. In 2005, the new Iraqi government accused its predecessor of malfeasance in the area of defense procurement, and of purchasing useless scrap on a wide scale, including this purchase from Poland. Among the accused was the former Iraqi Vice-Minister of Defense, now a Polish citizen, Ziyad Cattan. The 28-year-old helicopters ended up, of course, being bought by the Polish Army.

On October 25 the last armed Polish soldier will leave Iraq, leaving only 20 trainers as part of a NATO force. The military agrees on one thing: Iraq has revealed the weakness of the Polish Army, paving the way for its reform. "Before Iraq the process of professionalizing the Army was off in the weeds" says Janusz Zemke. But we still have a way to go to be a professional Army. [...] Rumor has it that the new Chief of Staff may be Mieczyslaw Stachowiak, famous for losing 90% of his units in a single day during a NATO command exercise.


We have learned to look at the Iraq mission exclusively in terms of salary paid, contracts lost and Humvees received. There was no moral or political reflection over the intervention in Iraq five years ago, and there still isn't any now. The humbug about weapons of mass destruction, a hundred thousand civilians killed, the tortures in Abu Ghraib - all of that took place in some other war, one that Polish public opinion always opposed, at least in polls. Which, of course, did not prevent us from taking pride in our own valiant mercenaries, courageous colonists and good occupiers.

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