With Tomasz Piotrowski about ending the Resolute Support mission, about the security situation in Afghanistan and the changes in the Polish Armed Forces that have taken place throughout the almost 20-year presence of Polish troops at the foothills of Hindu Kush talks Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek.
In April this year, President Joe Biden declared that about 3,500 American soldiers stationing in Afghanistan would be withdrawn from this country on September 11, 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. Soon after that, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, confirmed the information. The process had been planned to start before May 1. Did it actually start?
LtGen Tomasz Piotrowski: The withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan had been discussed for some time. Several options were discussed, from ending the mission abruptly, as announced by Donald Trump, to a little calmer way of leaving the country, based on the agreement signed by the USA and the Taliban. Throughout this time, Poland was an observer and a participant of all the planning processes. After the US elections and President Biden’s declaration on the drawdown of the US and allied forces from Afghanistan, as well as the announcement of NATO Secretary General, the process was launched. The withdrawal of the forces from the foot of Hindu Kush has been dynamic and very effective. But ending the mission in Afghanistan is a complicated process which takes time. We’re talking about not only removal of the forces and military equipment, but also transferring the responsibility for the security situation to the Afghans.
Can you tell us more about the withdrawal schedule? What is the schedule for the Polish Armed Forces?
Due to security reasons, the Resolute Support commanders decided that no details or dates would be revealed. This also relates to the scheduled withdrawal of all allied forces. Such information could be used for, e.g. organizing attacks on coalition forces. I can assure you, however, that these dates are strictly defined, and the ambition of General Austin Miller, Resolute Support commander, is to end the operation much earlier than on September 11, 2021.
When will Polish soldiers come home from Afghanistan?
They already came back at the end of June.
Was Poland sending less soldiers in the final phase than before due to the scheduled withdrawal? Was the final 13th PMC rotation reduced?
It was. In the peak moment, the 13th rotation counted about 340 soldiers, but during the last dozen or so weeks it was being gradually reduced. From the beginning, this rotation did not include units performing advisory and training tasks, but only those with force protection or logistic tasks, who were responsible for efficiently ending our mission.
Does it mean that soldiers taking part in the advisory and training mission for six months did not execute its main tasks?
In this case, it was not only about the reduction of forces in the theatre of war, but also about restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Afghanistan, due to weak diagnostics and high morbidity rate, at some point had enormous COVID-19 problems. It was decided that the training activity of our forces there would be limited to a minimum. The work of our soldiers was based on remote consulting. In direct contact were only the soldiers who trained specialized Afghan counter terrorist units.
In the final period, was it the logisticians that had to carry out most of the tasks?
Both the beginning and the end of the mission meant a lot of effort mainly for the logistic units. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an exceptionally demanding process, if only due to the security level in the region. For example, several months ago, when the situation in the border area between Armenia and Azerbaijan got worse, we had to entirely re-organize the transport to Poland from Afghanistan in order for the flight route to omit the fights in the Artsakh. Our logisticians had to work quickly, effectively and securely, and their effort was enormous.
NATO-led mission in the Taliban-governed Afghanistan was the first initiative of the Alliance invoking Article 5. What kind of Afghanistan is left after these 20 years? How do you asses the level of security in this country?
NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was to take place under certain conditions: NATO had to first be convinced that the Afghan government and local security forces were capable of functioning on their own without external support. The withdrawal operation is ongoing, so we should assume that Afghanistan is a safer place than it was 20 years ago. Two decades ago NATO entered a fallen state governed by a terrorist organization. Today, Afghanistan has a legally elected government with active local security forces.
Obviously, the situation at the foot of Hindu Kush is far from European standards. We’re sorry to hear reports on attacks on local uniformed services, but also on civilians. In the recent attacks in Kabul, over 170 people died. Schools are attacked, two female journalists were killed as well. It’s not the level of security as we see it in Europe, but it’s impossible to implement our model in Afghanistan.
Despite a signed peace treaty with the Taliban, the uniformed services are still being attacked…
In recent years, before the withdrawal, we have noticed that the attacks on the allies have stopped, although local security forces are still attacked. There is an ongoing fight for influence, these attacks are used as propaganda by opponents of the Kabul authorities.
Do you think that, after NATO forces leave Afghanistan, this relative security in the region will remain on the same level?
This question can’t be answered at this point. The situation changes dynamically, particularly since many parties want to influence everything that happens in this region. Among active players in the region are Pakistan, China, but also Russia.
NATO is leaving, but we know that the world abhors a vacuum…
That’s why there a number of mechanisms to support this country after the mission is over. NATO Secretary General has declared that Afghanistan will receive help, but of different nature, related e.g. to controlled financial support.
Is anything known about Polish participation in these projects?
Supporting Afghanistan by the international society, including NATO, has been discussed for a long time now. One of the elements of the broadly understood support is financing further growth of this country by international organizations. Currently, projects on further training of Afghan forces on the territory of other states are also considered. This process is now in the planning phase, and the Polish engagement will depend on political declarations.
Do you think that the withdrawal of the forces will increase the risk of civil war in Afghanistan and the ultimate seizure of power by the Taliban?
I think that at this point there is nothing that might induce a civil war. I don’t think that the government forces and the Taliban forces would clash in a full-scale conflict. A negative scenario may however be assumed due to the fact that civilians are permanently being attacked, and such terrorist attacks on Afghan community are something to be concerned about. These attacks could raise doubt as to whether the Afghan government is actually able to rule. I hope this won’t be the case.
Is it possible that NATO forces will one day return to Afghanistan?
It’s hard for me to imagine such a situation today. Perhaps this would be preferable if the situation there was the same as after the year 2000, if the human rights were violated and Afghanistan was again a place of terror. Still, it’s hard to speculate.
Will any NATO soldiers stay in Afghanistan after the completion of Resolute Support?
No NATO soldiers are planned to remain in Afghanistan, and for this reason no Polish soldiers will stay there either.
We have six years of an advisory and training mission behind us. What goals have been achieved?
We definitely proved that Poland and the Polish Armed Forces are a credible ally and they execute the tasks within NATO effectively. After the completion of the ISAF mission we didn’t back down, we took responsibility for what is still happening at the foot of Hindu Kush, and according to the expectations of the Alliance, we engaged in the training mission. We have proved ourselves in the role of teachers and mentors. The effect of our work is well conveyed knowledge and the progress made by the Afghan National Security Forces throughout these years . But our soldiers also benefited a lot from this mission. Most of all, we have established our position on the international arena as high-class specialists.
Are there any goals that were not achieved?
I will answer this question as a soldier: I would like to be leaving Afghanistan that is a state with a stable government, not torn by any attacks or violence. I would like the local police to protect Afghan citizens, and the army to train for potential aggression from outside, instead of fighting with the groups attacking its fellow citizens. I would call such a situation fully satisfactory.
Do you think that an almost 20-year presence at the foothill of Hindu Kush has changed the Polish army?
Absolutely, in every possible way. The conflict in Afghanistan has become a sort of censor for the skills of our soldiers. Afghanistan was a real-life test to check whether the training process is appropriate or whether the soldiers demonstrate high enough skills. This test was successful and improved the morale of our soldiers. They became more confident, ceased to be anonymous, and they could proudly compare themselves with soldiers of other nations.
The years of mission in Afghanistan had an enormous impact on the equipment our army uses today. The typical example of these changes is the Rosomak wheeled armored personnel carrier. This project would have never evolved to become what it is now, if we hadn’t been engaged in the Afghanistan mission. The ISAF mission also imposed certain changes in the structure of our battalions or motorized companies. Based on the experience, we modified the training programs, e.g. for the pilots of military transport or combat aircraft or helicopters. The mission also helped us develop our reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, battlefield medicine, cooperation with aviation including training forward air controllers. Today, our soldiers are mentoring other nations. We train, among others, Croatians and Ukrainians. All of it wouldn’t be possible if it hadn’t been for our presence in Afghanistan.
Of course, you could always ask whether it was worth the life of 44 human beings… But these losses are unfortunately the price we had to pay for our presence at the foothills of Hindu Kush.
Are you planning to create any report of completion, which would allow to produce an overall assessment of the Polish participation in military missions in Afghanistan?
The Ministry of National Defense, after the end of the mission in Afghanistan, will certainly summarize the Polish engagement. The information included in such a report will form a basis for a detailed analysis and assessment of performed tasks and achieved results. Twenty years of experience is an investment in the future.
How do you assess the perspectives for maintaining or developing the Polish and Afghan relationship after the withdrawal? The intensity of the cooperation will certainly decrease, but does Poland have any business at all left in Afghanistan? The contact so far – also military – has been quite intense and vivid.
Afghanistan remains a region of our interest, and we will unquestionably observe the processes occurring in this state. The completion of Resolute Support and the withdrawal of the coalition forces from Afghanistan, Poland included, will probably make it necessary to find other ways of training the Afghan forces. It is the future which is hard to refer to now, and the participation in future operations or activities being a continuation of this mission depends on political decisions.
When summarizing Resolute Support, we often discuss what will happen in Afghanistan when the NATO forces are gone. What if we reverse the question: what will the Polish Armed Forces be without Afghanistan? Aren’t you afraid of stagnation? Won’t the pace of our army’s development slow down when/once our soldiers lose the chance to verify their skills?
We unfortunately notice/feel that the situation of security in our part of Europe is worsening with every passing day, so I don’t think that the amount of military training or the level of the army’s modernization will be reduced. Quite the contrary. We need new communication means, new weapons, new training programs. We have to continuously develop the skills of our army, so it’s capable of responding to multi-domain threats.
LtGen Tomasz Piotrowski is the Polish Armed Forces’ Operational Commander.
Pełna wersja wywiadu w najnowszym numerze miesięcznika „Polska Zbrojna” 7/2021.
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autor zdjęć: st. sierż. Patryk Cieliński, st. chor. sztab. mar. Arkadiusz Dwulatek