Polish war crimes trial impacts soldiers’ rules of engagement

At Foreign Policy, Aleksandra Kulczuga published an interesting article on the effects resulting from a war crimes trial of seven Polish troops who were accused of intentionally killing civilians during a firefight in Nangar Khel in Paktika in 2007. The soldiers were eventually acquitted, but their imprisonment and trial has adversely impacted the way Polish troops fight today in Ghazni province.

The result, at least anecdotally, has been a challenge to Polish resolve in the field. “When they are out in the open and being shot at, there were no issues: They will shoot back. It was when they were in the towns that they wouldn’t return fire,” says Army Sgt. 1st Class Nicolae Bunea, who was part of a team of U.S. soldiers tasked with assisting Poland as it assumed control of Ghazni in 2008. “If there was even a chance of killing a civilian, they wouldn’t shoot.”

Bunea, sometimes the lone American accompanying a Polish patrol, says there were engagements in which he was the only one who returned fire — and that the Nangar Khel prosecutions were the reason why. “I would try to explain to them, ‘You’re with me — if I shoot, you need to shoot too,'” says Bunea. “They were afraid of going to jail. They were always thinking about [Nangar Khel]. They would say, ‘You don’t understand — I go to jail if I kill people.'”

Clearly, Polish soldiers in Afghanistan were thinking about the trial and its repercussions when I visited in April and May. On a mission in late April in Ghazni, I overheard a Polish soldier cautioning his buddy to double-check the safety on his weapon: “Or it might be straight to Poznan for you.”

The nervous chuckle in response belied what all soldiers fear: the military prison in the town of Poznan, Poland, where their comrades were held.

The Nangar Khel trial is a textbook case illustrating how the legal scrutiny applied to military operations can not only adversely affect the way troops fight in the field, but can have a greater impact on the strategic picture. Kulczuga goes on to explain that as US forces begin drawing down in Afghanistan, Polish troops may need to take on greater responsibilities in Ghazni, an area used by the Taliban and al Qaeda as a staging ground for attacks in the southeast, particularly in Uruzgan, Zabul, and Kandahar. Highway 1, the main road that connects Kabul to Kandahar City, passes through Ghazni. A setback in the province can impact recent gains in the south, as well as contribute to a deterioration of the stalemate in the southeast, where the Haqqani Network dominates.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • Bill says:

    Any ‘RULE’ that puts our troops IN MORE DANGER is a rule that should be THROWN AWAY.
    This is a war. Obviously our troops are not going to purposefully TARGET civilians. But forcing to abide by suicidal rules is nothing less than treason and murder of our troops who selflessly fight in this never ending “war!” And what for???


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