by Melania Parzonka
“Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective - a new world order - can emerge. A new era - freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace.“
With these words, on 11 September 1991, after the successful expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait earlier that year, George Bush Sr. proudly proclaimed the beginning of a new world order of international cooperation. While the term “New World Order” began to grow more popular with conspiracy theorists, it was also clear that the Gulf War would become one of the most defining points of the post-Cold War political universe. It was the beginning of a new, unilateral world of American interventionism that would set the whole Middle East ablaze.
Yet, for one of the freshly independent Soviet ex-satellites, Poland, the Gulf War became an opportunity to gain a trump card in the eyes of the US and instigate close military cooperation between the two countries in the decades to come. Covert cooperation in Iraq resulted in Poland’s ascension to the role of a protecting power for the US in Iraq after cessation of Iraqi-American diplomatic relations at the end of the Gulf War. The US Interests Section of the Polish Embassy in Iraq remained the sole link between the Iraqi government and the US up until the outbreak of the war in 2003, when Poland, as a faithful ally, joined the anti-Iraqi coalition with the fourth-largest contingent of troops.
Let’s investigate how this all started.
I. Master plan of Baghdad
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 came at a particularly sensitive period for Poland - the critical phase of a drastic economic reform when privatisation of state-owned enterprises had just begun. Poland was desperately fighting to obtain financial assistance from the West, negotiating a reduction of the debt accumulated under the communist regime. The US, fearing that any involvement in Eastern Europe would antagonise the USSR, was reluctant to provide any financial support beyond the bare minimum – there would be no second Marshall Plan for the newly emerged democracies.
Under the communist regime, Poland enjoyed close relations with Baathist Iraq. Trade was flourishing, Iraqi students were travelling to attend Polish universities, and Polish construction companies were making a vital contribution to Iraqi infrastructure. In 1965, a Polish urban planning company called Miastoprojekt won a contract for developing a master plan of Baghdad. The contract, mediated by the state-owned foreign trade office Polservice, included directives for local plans and mapping of the urban territory. In order to develop a blueprint for the development of Baghdad that would come to life during the heavy industrialisation period of the 1970s, Miastoprojekt gathered data on everything regarding infrastructure, railway systems, and land use.
The close industrial cooperation between the two countries continued in the wake of Poland’s independence. In 1990, caught in the awkward period of accelerated privatisation, Polservice, set up as a central foreign trade institution by the communists, was still a part of the state-owned trade apparatus. At the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it coordinated approximately 3,000 Polish workers employed in Iraq who were present on almost all the important construction sites, including the Baghdad electric plant. Polservice thus had access to detailed plans of many strategic locations, on top of old Miastoprojekt’s sketches that were used to create the master map of Baghdad.
Taken together, these factors created an unprecedented opportunity for Poland to prove loyalty to the US, a newly emerging post-Cold War world hegemon that was capable of granting relief to Poland’s economic and security anxieties. Poland joined the coalition forces in September 1990, but any involvement of Polish troops in combat was out of the question. The Polish military was weak, underfunded, and lacked interoperability with other coalition forces—and on top of that, Poland did not want to antagonise Iraq. The sketches and data belonging to Polservice were a goldmine of strategic military intelligence about the Iraqi capital. The next move was obvious - in September 1990, the sketches were secretly flown to Warsaw by Colonel Kazimierz Szapował, and the intelligence was passed to the Americans. When Operation Desert Storm began a few months later, the precisely targeted air strikes were planned according to this information.
II. Rescue Mission
By that point, the Polish foreign service sensed that covert Polish-American cooperation in Iraq could bring them benefits in the future. Shortly after smuggling the maps out, in October 1990, a freshly appointed ambassador to Iraq, Krzysztof Plominski, was joined by Lieutenant Gromoslaw Czempinski, a high-ranking Polish military intelligence official who posed as the new embassy’s vice-secretary, Jan W. Czempinski was sent to Baghdad to help evacuate CIA and DIA operatives who had been surprised in Kuwait by the Iraqi aggression. The agents, having illegally crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border, were trapped in Iraq without travel permits allowing them to exit Iraq. Attempting to leave illegally meant risking capture that could result in imprisonment, torture, and even death sentences for espionage. The US turned to the members of the coalition to help, but the French and British refused, fearing for their own operatives trapped in Iraq.
For the Polish officials, participation in the rescue mission was seen as a golden ticket to the Western world. The decision to rescue Americans was made by the Office of State Protection (UOP) in hopes that such extraordinary favour would facilitate an alliance between Poland and the US and possibly open the road to NATO membership in the future. The head of UOP, Krzysztof Kozlowski, believed that American distrust towards Poland as an ex-Soviet ally (and, technically, still a member of the Warsaw Pact) could only be overcome through successful cooperation of special forces on sensitive matters; the economic and cultural cooperation would follow. The rescue mission coordinated by Lieutenant Gromoslaw Czempinski ended in success, and American operatives were evacuated safely through the Iraq-Turkey border.
This massive diplomatic favour paid off almost immediately. In May 1991, after mutual cessation of diplomatic ties between the US and Iraq, Poland was chosen as the protecting power for the US in Iraq. The figure selected as the head of the US interests section in Iraq was Jan Wojciech Piekarski, to whom Americans made it clear that “the fact that Poland will represent US interests in Baghdad is more important for Polish-American relations than for Iraqi-American relations.” The successful rescue mission prompted the director of the CIA, William Webster, to write a letter to Bush requesting debt forgiveness for the Poles. Soon after the liberation of Kuwait, on 16 March, 1991, it was announced by the Paris Club that Poland could expect an unprecedented 50% debt cut. It was the most generous cut ever granted by the creditor nations.
The debt reduction consolidated Polish pro-American attitude. This sentiment was eagerly expressed in a conversation between the famous Solidarity leader-turned-first president of democratic Poland, Lech Walesa, and George Bush Sr., during the former’s visit to the White House on 20 March, 1991. Walesa gave a bizarre pledge of loyalty to Bush in his characteristically chaotic but sincere manner, marking the end of decades of close economic partnership with Iraq: “We do not want Soviet junk like the tanks that we make. But what am I going to do with these lousy tanks? I cannot sell them to Iraq because that would undermine your policy.”
The Polish embassy remained the protecting power for the U.S. in Iraq up until the 2003 war. Favours given to the Americans in Iraq led to the development of close military cooperation; the very same people who planned and participated in the rescue mission in Iraq were later designated to lead the first Polish special forces unit, GROM – sponsored and trained by the US. Later, the GROM unit accompanied American soldiers on missions in Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Afghanistan. The Polish government’s decision to offer an old military airport in Stare Kiejkuty, Eastern Poland to be used as one of the CIA extraordinary rendition sites following 9/11 further consolidated Poland’s image as a close US ally willing to go to great lengths to please the Americans. In 2003, Poland became one of the four main coalition forces, alongside the US, the UK and Canada, faithfully following them in the invasion of Iraq and receiving command over one of the four occupation zones, stretching between Baghdad and Basra.
Today, we have yet to witness the ejection of Polish forces from Iraq. In the meantime, 4500 US soldiers are stationed in Poland on a rotational basis, allowing the US to flex its muscles to the East, as Russia is building up its arsenal in Kaliningrad, demonstrating that the old-school Cold War power games are still very much alive.