PRAGUE - Poland has woken up to the possibility that its troops in Afghanistan
were involved in a war crime against defenseless civilians.
The reported events have shocked a public which remains sensitive to the performance
of its country's military missions abroad. But Polish authorities have kept
the flow of information under control, leaving the media the task of digging
out the truth.
In August separate Polish and US patrols were struck by explosive devices.
Polish reinforcements soon arrived and opened fire on a nearby village.
The mortar attack on the village of Nangar Khel, close to the Afghan-Pakistani
border, killed eight Afghani civilians and left three women crippled. A pregnant
woman and a child were among the dead.
"We are very concerned about a possible war crime, a lot of Poles cannot
believe our soldiers could commit such a crime," Jacek Przybylski, deputy
foreign editor of the leading Polish daily Rzeczpospolita told IPS.
But many others in Poland want exemplary punishment for the soldiers, a formal
apology to Afghanistan, and large compensation paid to the victims' families.
If the war crime is proven, six of the seven perpetrators, who have been held
in state custody, could face life in prison. But more officers might be accused
as the investigation unfolds.
On Nov. 13 the military prosecution, citing secret evidence, ascertained that
there was no exchange of fire, and that the civilians had been fired upon with
the intent to kill them. The prosecutor's office filed charges against seven
soldiers, who stand accused of violating international law.
The prosecution sees no mitigating circumstances in the case, and maintains
that no error or hardware failure can account for the way the mortars were aimed
by some of Poland's supposedly best soldiers.
No Taliban members are believed to have been in the village, though initially
the soldiers accused reportedly told their commanders that they had been shot
at from the village. The officers involved are also accused of hindering the
Citing unnamed sources, the prestigious daily Gazeta Wyborcza claims
that the evidence could include video footage of a Polish soldier entering the
bombarded village. According to this report, the behavior of the Polish troops
In statements to the press earlier, commander of the Polish military contingent
in Afghanistan Gen. Mark Tomaszycki said soldiers did not enter the village,
and only fired from a distance.
Tomaszycki said the soldiers did not claim to have been fired upon, but only
that there had been some contact with Taliban.
Questions have since arisen why commanders gave the order to open fire on the
civilian settlement – and why these orders were followed. It remains unclear
how informed the soldiers' superiors were on the details of the operation and
what their level of responsibility is.
Military prosecutors apparently have not interrogated senior officers yet,
though this is required by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) procedures,
raising suspicion that responsibilities might be concealed and the soldiers
used as scapegoats.
The daily Rzeczpospolita bases such claims on information given to it by an
unnamed officer serving in Afghanistan.
The daily reports that the defense will consider responsibility by commanders
and politicians, since it believes the contingent's commanders could have coordinated
a version of the story with the soldiers, promising them the case would die
Citing court documents, Polish radio station RMF maintains that one soldier
refused to follow his superiors' orders and left, and that later a deputy commander
told the remaining soldiers they should not be concerned about rockets hitting
The defense is also raising the possibility that the killing could have been
caused by a faulty mortar gun or damaged ammunition.
"We have sources in the army that say that it was only an incident, and
that they thought they were attacking the Taliban, getting their information
from US troops," Przybylski told IPS.
The wives of two of the soldiers accused of war crimes have said the "suggestion"
to open fire came from a US command.
According to the Dec. 3 edition of Rzeczpospolita, the Polish soldiers
were told by the base "the village needs to be f***** up," but claim
they were still aiming at the nearby hills where they supposed the Taliban members
were hiding. It is believed that Taliban members often come down from the hills
and hide among the civilian population in villages, especially at night.
The prosecution says there is no proof indicating US responsibility, but
in Poland disillusionment with the US is on the rise.
Roman Kuzniar, head of the strategic studies department at Warsaw University,
says that while the Polish contingent in Afghanistan is part of NATO's peacekeeping
mission, Polish troops have been made subordinate to US troops, impairing
the quality of the Polish mission.
"It was certain that our soldiers would soon adopt the methods of combat
of their American superiors and colleagues. These methods involve ignoring completely
all rights and limitations under international humanitarian law," Kuzniar
wrote in the Nov. 21 edition of Warsaw Dziennik.
Recent statements by US President George Bush have done little to improve
Washington's image in Poland.
"Bush recently forgot to mention Polish troops when mentioning US allies
in Afghanistan," Przybylski told IPS. "For Poles it is especially
important to be recognized as allies of the US."
Both the Iraqi and the Afghani missions are unpopular among Poles. The withdrawal
from Iraq has been scheduled for 2008, but there are still no plans to reduce
the 1,200-strong contingent in Afghanistan. But it could, however, be changed
into one of a more civilian nature.
A poll conducted shortly after the prosecution announced its findings shows
that the Afghani mission has almost equaled the Iraqi mission in unpopularity,
with 85 percent of Poles opposing both missions.
Poles also overwhelmingly support an official apology to the Afghanistan government.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk has made that conditional on the investigation's
The villagers have been given medical assistance, food and money but for some
the compensation is insufficient, and could be interpreted as an attempt to
buy their silence.
"One might get the impression that an attempt was made to cram these people's
mouths shut with rice and rolls of banknotes," the Warsaw Dziennik
wrote Nov. 15. "Real compensation should be paid out to the families of
those killed and injured, rather than our resting satisfied by tossing scrap