284. Military Capabilities of the Central Europeans: What Can They Contribute to the Stabilization of Iraq?

By
Andrew Michta

Andrew A. Michta is the Mertie Willigar Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Tennessee. Meeting Report 284.

Among the three new NATO allies, only Poland has both the potential and the political will to meaningfully contribute to the stabilization mission in Iraq. In comparison, the Hungarian and Czech contributions have been and will likely remain small, limited to the symbolic troop deployment to the Polish and British zones, the continued access to Hungarian air space and the deployment of the Czech hospital assigned to the operation. Unlike the Hungarian and Czech governments, where support for US policy in Iraq has been quite tenuous, Poland has consistently backed the US position on Iraq despite increased friction with Germany—its core European partner. The Polish government has also been willing to back its political support with a substantial military contribution. Arguably, Poland has promised to deploy and command forces abroad that exceed the country's actual military capacity.

Poland's special role is a function of several factors, including its unequivocally pro-American foreign policy, the fact that it has the largest and most aggressively-modernizing military among the 1999 NATO entrants, its strong martial tradition and the peacekeeping experience it accumulated during the Cold War and in the Balkans. Today, in addition to Iraq, Poles are deployed in Syria, Lebanon, Bosnia and Kosovo, and have observers in a number of countries, including Afghanistan. Relying on US and NATO assistance, Poland has been able to field a modest contingent in Iraq as part of an international division that it commands.

In this paper I will first briefly describe the largely symbolic Hungarian and Czech military contribution to the operation in Iraq. I will then concentrate on the Polish military contribution in the context of its ongoing military modernization program. I will conclude with an assessment of the limits of Poland's support for the coalition operations in Iraq.

Hungary and the Czech Republic
I would argue that the Czech position on the war in Iraq has been virtually identical to France's. And although Hungary signed a letter of support for the US operation, its government later apologized for not consulting the EU on its foreign policy. The absence of political will aside, the Czech and Hungarian military contributions to the stabilization of Iraq have been constrained by the slow progress of their military modernization and inadequate defense spending. As of today, Hungary has been through six cycles of defense reform—none of which were ultimately successful. The Czech military modernization program was put on hold after the floods that devastated the country in 2001.

In the course of the US-lead campaign in Iraq, Hungary contributed one significant asset: unlimited access to its airspace. Moreover, in June 2003, the Hungarian Parliament approved the deployment of 300 soldiers to Iraq to be part of the international stabilization force in the Polish sector. This unit specializes in logistics and the distribution of humanitarian aid. In December 2002, the Hungarian government made available an air base at Taszár to train exiled Iraqi opposition leaders. This air base was later considered as the primary site for training Iraqi police, although ultimately was not used.

The biggest factor limiting Hungary's contribution to the occupation of Iraq is the country's long-delayed and largely-failed military modernization. The continued deficiencies have led to biting critiques, not only from NATO headquarters, but also from other Central European states. Speaking in the Hungarian town of Veszprem on October 24, 2003, Minister of Defence Ferenc Juhasz defended his record, citing institutional constraints, which caused problems related to the foreign deployment of Hungarian soldiers, and in particular legal problems, which require an amendment to the Hungarian Constitution to resolve. Nevertheless, Juhasz admitted that the limited success of military modernization was due largely to political bickering.

The Czech contribution to the Iraq operation amounts to a contingent of 311 troops deployed to the British division. Of this number, the Czech contingent in Basra reportedly consists of 79 military police. Another contribution was the deployment in April 2003 of a field hospital in Basra, which the US partially funded. The Czech Parliament set the mandate for the hospital to expire at the end of 2003, but the defense minister has since asked for a two-month extension. Prior to the war, the Parliament also agreed that the Czech chemical unit based in Kuwait would be able to enter the country in defense of non-combat troops during the campaign. The Czechs have also offered assistance in retraining the Iraqi police and interior ministry personnel. The actual commitment of Czech resources to the stabilization effort remains limited. The modest contribution of the Czech Republic seems to reflect the overall skepticism in Prague as to the wisdom of American policy in Iraq.

Poland
The Polish-led Multinational Division Central South, spanning the region between Baghdad and Al-Basrah, is comparatively small, amounting to approximately 9,200 soldiers, as opposed to the standard 15,000. As the command skills and overall cohesion matures, the division should be able to absorb additional contributions, should they be forthcoming. The biggest challenge has been integrating troops from 21 European (including troops from Bulgaria, Spain and Ukraine), Asian and Latin American nations (17 with operational capacity and four in support roles), with the inevitable friction in the area of language, communications, training and what can be called the "distinct military cultures" of the participants.

In the long run, the Polish military contribution to the stabilization of Iraq is conditional, as it depends on continued US funding and the success of the current cycle of military modernization. At the political level, the scope of Poland's military contribution in Iraq will ultimately depend on the long-term public support for its military mission. Even so, while the Poles have shown growing unease and declining levels of public support for their troop deployment in Iraq, interviews I conducted in Warsaw in May 2003 confirm that the level of elite commitment has remained strong.

Financial support of the polish contingent
US funding of the Polish contingent in Iraq is necessary due to Poland's incomplete transition and relative poverty. The Polish economy is only beginning to emerge from a recession, and hence the government is able to pay only for the salaries and insurance of their troops in Iraq. Even though there have been signs recently that the worst economic times for Poland might be over—the government reported that economic growth in 2003 may reach or even exceed 3 percent—the country has simply too many pressing domestic needs in light of the impending EU membership to cover more of the cost of the deployment. It must be understood that if the Poles are to increase or even continue their current level of commitment to the Iraq operation, the US must continue to pay for it. Perhaps on balance this is not such a bad deal, as pointed out by former Deputy Defense Minister Radek Sikorski, who argued that paying for the approximately 2,500 Polish troops amounts to a savings of $900 million dollars a year compared to what it would cost to replace the Poles with American soldiers. His estimates, published in the national daily newspaper, Rzeczpospolita (September 13, 2003), are based on a $3.9 billion per month occupation cost, divided by approximately 130,000 troops currently on the ground.

According to the Ministry of National Defense (MOD), currently Poland is contributing 2,438 troops. Though Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski has repeatedly asserted that the government does not envision increasing this contingent, Poland may be able to increase its deployment, depending on additional US resources and the needs of the coalition. Since the formal takeover of its sector in September, the Polish military has been adapting rapidly to the new requirements. It has had its measure of mistakes—the most spectacular being a brief quarrel with France over the dating of the Roland missiles found in the Polish sector—but thus far the performance of the Polish division has disproved the skeptics. Provided that the lessons drawn from the field are going to be successfully absorbed by the next troop rotation, Poland should be able to increase its deployment if necessary, and more importantly, to increase the efficiency of its operation.

Military modernization and capacity-building
Military modernization has been a high priority in Poland, relative to other Central European states. Therefore, the quality of the initial Polish contingent has been good, especially when compared to some of the smaller contributors. Most importantly, its quality and effectiveness are likely to improve as troops rotate, accumulate experience and improve training.

The deployment of the Polish contingent in the division is being accompanied by an ongoing MOD assessment of the experience, coordinated through on-site inspections. The adjustment will include changes in the mix of the soldiers' specialization, as well as rotating the division's commander. The commander set to replace General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz will be General Mieczyslaw Bieniek, who already led the transition team when it was sent to Iraq for a week in October.

One of the more valuable assets that the Polish military has to help prepare for these missions is the Center for Peacekeeping Operations Training in Kielce. It is also encouraging that the new contingent will be drawn from the Krakow-based Sixth Mobile Assault Brigade (one of the most professional units in the Polish armed forces, with extensive experience in the Balkans) and the Eighteenth Mobile Assault Battalion from Bielsko Biala. It appears that General Bieniek's contingent will be drawn largely from each unit's core personnel who have trained and lived together for months prior to the deployment. For example, the Eighteenth Mobile Assault Battalion will provide 100 percent of the enlistments for the contingent from within the unit, with only approximately 15 percent of support personnel drawn from other units to fill special slots requiring qualifications that the battalion lacks.

This second Polish contingent will include a lower number of logistics specialists, while the number of soldiers trained for patrol and guard duty will increase. It will also receive improved equipment, including an updated version of the Honker ATV and Star 944 truck, additional night vision equipment and—most importantly—new vests with Kevlar inserts in the back as well as the front. The number of personnel is likely to remain unchanged for now, as Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski announced in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (October 27, 2003).

The relatively short, six-month tour of duty is an indication that the Polish military wants to maintain a high level of morale in Iraq. The six-month rotation will both reduce the stress levels on the deployed units and increase the pace of absorbing the experience in Iraq into the armed forces at large. During our conversation, a senior Polish officer asserted that the Polish military views the deployment in Iraq not only as a political commitment, but also as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accumulate the body of experience that can fuel modernization and professionalization in the armed forces.

There is also a larger dimension to Polish deployment in Iraq, one that is likely to have long-term implications for US security policy in Central Europe. Other than the British and the French, today Poland is arguably the only country in Europe that is serious about developing its military capability. It has been forced to adjust its forces to its new mission, which—in combination with the F-16 offsets in the Polish defense sector and the infusion of US money and equipment—will give the Polish armed forces their first real opportunity to reach beyond the institutional adjustments generated by the NATO enlargement process. The contribution to the stabilization in Iraq, in combination with the projected shift in the US military footprint in Europe, is likely to lay foundations for long-term American-Polish military cooperation, including possibly joint units down the line.

Public Support
Participation in the occupation of Iraq is Poland's most important military operation since it regained independence in 1989. The government and the military view Poland's involvement as a potentially risky venture into the ‘big leagues' of world politics, as well as a great opportunity for Poland to establish itself as the key ally of the US in Central Europe. The decision to support the US was a turning point in Polish foreign policy, in which Poland chose to place greater stock in the transatlantic relationship than in the intra-EU dynamic. Thus far, Poland has managed to contain the political fallout in its relations with Germany and, to a lesser extent, France.

Outside the strictly military performance, Poland has considerable experience in Iraq, accumulated in the 1970s and 1980s when Polish firms were contracted for 25 large-scale investment projects including roads, steelworks near Basra, a sugar processing plant in Mosul and cement works in Faluja. According to the monthly Polska Zbrojna, approximately 50,000 Polish citizens worked in Iraq prior to 1991. In short, the appointment of former Finance Minister Marek Belka as Director for Economic Policy in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq need not be interpreted as simply a political payoff for Poland's support in the war, but also as recognition that the Poles have experience working in Iraq.

After Desert Storm, Polish firms were owed several hundred million dollars for their previous work in Iraq, and only 11 of these firms were able to recover some of the debt through the UN's Oil for Food program. Some firms would like to return to Iraq as subcontractors and part of larger consortia. Unofficially, it is believed that the Poles can take part in the rebuilding of the oil installation in southern Iraq (this would involve the participation of the Gdansk Refinery). One of the expectations in Poland is that the military contribution to the operation in Iraq will translate into economic benefits, especially jobs to ease the country's crushing unemployment burden.

The greatest potential obstacle to increasing or even maintaining the Polish military deployment in Iraq lies in public support. The Polish government's decision to align its policy with America's objectives in Iraq has never had majority support in Poland. Polls conducted by Centrum Badania Opinii Spolecznej (CBOS) in February 2003 showed that 51 percent of Poles oppose the government declaration of unity with the US on its Iraq policy, with only 29 percent in favor—and of these only 8 percent strongly in favor—of the declaration. When asked whether Poland should support the US military operation in Iraq, 62 percent of those polled expressed opposition to the policy and 76 percent believed that Poland should not participate in a war against Iraq. After the military campaign, on the eve of the Polish deployment of troops to lead the international division in Iraq, 60 percent of the population opposed the participation of Polish soldiers in the mission. Support for Poland's direct participation in the occupation force was expressed by 34 percent of the sample. Growing public concern about the war and Poland's full alignment with the US was also reflected by the decline in popularity of President George W. Bush. Though President Bush remained the most popular foreign leader among Poles, his July 2003 ranking of 61 percent approval marked a 12-point decline relative to 2002, accompanied by a 10-point increase in negative attitudes.

As fighting in Iraq increased in intensity, Polish public opinion surveys began to show deepening cleavages between the policy-making elite and popular opinion. According to data released by CBOS after a survey conducted in October 2003, only 37 percent of the Poles supported continued Polish military deployment in Iraq, with 57 percent expressing their opposition. Even more disturbing for future plans to increase the Polish deployment in Iraq is the 12 percent jump (compared to the previous month) in the number of those who believe that Poland will be attacked by terrorists. In the most recent CBOS survey that number now stands at 70 percent of the population. The growing public unease will likely become a pressing political issue particularly after the recent casualties from the Polish contingent.

 

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