Why NATO Allies May Not Be the Answer to the Military Challenges in Afghanistan

U.S. troops express concern that progress bought with their sweat and blood will be lost.


Transition. When the Poles came in, however, they wanted to move the PCC to the more secure forward operation base. The Americans pointed out that doing this would make it virtually impossible for Afghan locals to stop by. The Poles eventually conceded, though they did move the PCC closer to the base. Their next order of business was to install satellite television. When U.S. troops visited the PCC after the move, "not one Polish soldier was in front of a radio. They were all just watching TV," says a U.S. soldier. The map Threadcraft made had fallen behind a desk.

At dinner, the governor asks the Polish commander for his views about the death of the Afghan security guards. Andrzejczak responds that he prefers to look to the future, not the past. At this, Usman stares straight ahead, working his prayer beads.

It has not been the only incident to anger the locals. In the southern Ghazni town of Andar, American troops built a combat outpost to strengthen relationships with locals in an area that has struggled with a Taliban shadow government. Soon after the Poles took over, the U.S. soldiers began receiving troubling calls from the Afghans who work on the base. The workers complained that the Polish soldiers no longer let them eat in the cafeteria or use the showers or work out in the gym—and that they were now under constant surveillance. "They're calling us up," says one U.S. soldier, "saying they're done." The Americans are worried about the impact this will have on the strides they made reaching out to local mullahs.

In the weeks leading up to the transfer of authority, there have been discipline problems with the Polish forces, 40 percent of whom are conscripts. A drunk Polish captain roughed up an Afghan interpreter in his living quarters. A Polish convoy driving downtown hit an Afghan national policeman and, fearing a riot, didn't stop; instead, someone threw a stretcher out of one of the vehicles.

Interpreters and cultural understanding have been issues as well. The Poles brought four citizens of Afghan descent, but they use them for intelligence, not interpreting. The governor, who speaks fluent English, says it is difficult for him to understand the Poles.

On the day of the official handover ceremony at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, NATO's supreme allied commander flies in, as does the Afghan minister of defense. One U.S. soldier jokes that catching the last Chinook out of Ghazni will be like catching the last helicopter out of Saigon. "They keep telling us that the Poles are bringing the heavy weapons to Ghazni," says another. "But now is not the time for heavy weapons."

Soldiers speculate about whether Afghans will have flashbacks when they see the Poles' HIND attack helicopters, the kind that were used with deadly effect during the Soviet occupation. They also bring up the considerable U.S. money—such as from commanders' discretionary funds—that Ghazni and the governor stand to lose, although aid work continues.

Skills and firepower. Some senior U.S. military officials say that the soldiers are being too hard on the Poles. "Skill-wise, they are fine," says Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division. "Militarily, we have total confidence. They bring more combat power with them to Ghazni." And he points out that the Poles and the Afghans have something in common. "They both succeeded in throwing off the yoke of Soviet communism."

Andrzejczak, a former tank company commander who was deployed to the politically volatile Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border as a U.N. peacekeeper, says he knows that Ghazni will be a different kind of soldiering than his troops are used to. The Poles are accustomed to patrolling in large convoys. "Here," he says, "first you are told to go smile. This is not our approach." But, he adds, his troops will learn. He knows that the political challenges may outweigh the war-fighting challenges and that building a relationship with the governor will be one of his major goals. But, he says, his first priority is the Afghan people. "We will operate with arguments, and fight with words."