August 23, 2009:
On August 20th, the commander of Poland's army, general Waldemar Skrzypczak, resigned his post because the government has not supplied its 2,000 troops in Afghanistan with adequate training, weapons or equipment. This dispute has been growing over the last three years, along with the number of Polish troops in Afghanistan. Three years ago, there was only a token force (100 soldiers) there, as part of the NATO contingent. But Poland was persuaded to increase that forces, and first promised to send a thousand troops, then 1,600 and, currently, two thousand.
The Polish military eliminated conscription this year, and the troops being sent to Afghanistan have always been volunteers. They are professionals. The Polish troops headed to Afghanistan got on the Internet and in touch with troops from other NATO countries that had been (or still were) there, to get tips on what to take, and advice on how to prepare. The troops knew that Poland, since it joined NATO a decade ago, had spent a disproportionate chunk of the defense budget to replace Cold War era Russian gear with NATO standard stuff. Then came the effort to end conscription (completed earlier this year) which meant more money had to go for troop pay.
Some of the equipment of the troops knew they would need, they got. But not always the best quality. Some soldiers bought better stuff with their own money, and this turned into a media scandal. Meanwhile, in 2003, 2,500 Polish troops had joined the U.S. and Britain in Iraq, so the Polish military had firsthand experience with what the Americans were using. The U.S. troops set the standard for the best and most effective gear. The American troops also had the money to constantly dump items that didn't work out. The Polish troops quickly learned to pay attention to what the Americans were trying out, to find out what was worth spending money on. But this soon caused problems with Polish defense officials. For example, U.S. troops went through several generations of body armor, and the Polish budget (and Polish army pay levels) did not provide enough cash to keep up. The Polish troops also wanted more personal radios (a British initiative that caught on big time), roadside bomb jammers and night vision gear. This was driving the Polish procurement bureaucrats nuts, but the troops were on the Internet to the folks, and media, back home. This put more pressure on the brass, and the government budget people. The bureaucrats dug in and stonewalled, or delayed, a lot of requests. So while the Polish armed forces bought American UAVs from the United States three years ago, these unmanned aircraft seemed to take forever to reach Afghanistan. Same with transport and gunship helicopters. A simple request, like machine-guns for the Mi-17 transport helicopters, took forever to fill.
One of the most annoying problems was the Defense Ministry supply office, who had more procedures than sense, and took forever to fill spare parts requests. This never seemed to get fixed, and even the media got tired of beating on it. But for the troops, with much of their equipment inoperable because parts had not arrived yet, the problem remained a big deal. Logistics in general has been a big problem for Polish troops overseas, and Afghanistan is simply a worst case. Poland has had a lot of troops on peacekeeping missions during the last decade, and they all have many of the same problems the Polish troops in Afghanistan suffer from.
The United States helped out as much as it could. Last year, the U.S. loaned Poland 40 Cougar MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles for use in Afghanistan. Cougar is a 12 ton truck that is hardened to survive bombs and mines. This was a big help. A lot of other American equipment was "loaned" unofficially. This is not unusual during wartime, where, at the troop level, the sense of urgency is more tangible, than it is back home.
General Skrzypczak had run through a long list of actions, trying to get the politicians and bureaucrats to realize how critical the need was in Afghanistan. While only ten Polish troops have died there so far, dozens more have been wounded, and each dead or wounded soldier gets a lot of media coverage back home. So Skrzypczak took a bunch of paper bullets, in an attempt to wake up the rest of the government. His resignation did stir things up, but it remains to be seen if it was enough.