TST, Vol. 8, Issue No. 24/2001
Ever since the September 11th terrorist attack on America, the Polish
government and Polish people have been expressing their sympathy, solidarity
and desire to help. Although Poland's top rescue teams were ready to assist
NY rescuers at the WTO disaster site, it was felt that sending uninvited
emergency workers to an unfamiliar area might be more of a hindrance than
a help. Poland's leaders were personally informed by the Bush Administration
of the US decision to launch air strikes on strategic targets in Afghanistan.
Although Polish authorities said they were ready to place their armed forces
at the disposal of NATO, which Poland joined in 1999, the Polish Army's
antiquated military hardware seemed to rule out any active participation
in the anti-terrorist campaign in and around Afghanistan. But as reports
of American commandos operating on Afghan territory began circulating,
the serious Warsaw financial daily 'Rzeczpospolita' reported on its front
page that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and key members of the
incoming and outgoing had decided to send GROM, Poland's elite fighting
force, to Afghanistan.
GROM was set up in 1990 under American supervision by Gen. Slawomir Petelicki. (GROM is the abbreviation for Operational Mobile Reaction Group but the acronym appropriately spells out the Polish word for thunderbolt.) The tough, crack several-hundred-strong commando unit comprising career officers and NCOs first proved itself in the 1994 international pro-democracy operation in Haiti, and two years later arrested Serbian war criminal Slavko Dokamnovic in former Yugoslavia. International military analysts rank GROM among the world's best units of its kind along with America's Delta Force, Britain's SAS and similar organizations in a few other countries.
According to 'Rzeczpospolita', which said it had based its report on 'well-informed sources', the decision to send GROM to Afghanistan was taken in reply to a US request at a previously unpublicized meeting attended between by President Kwasniewski and key members of the incoming and outgoing administration. All of them denied knowing of any plans to deploy GROM in the Central Asian combat zone. Since GROM is an effective, swift-reaction unit whose recruitment and training are largely shrouded in secrecy, we may not out if it was deployed in the operation until it is all over. Or maybe never.
Whatever the case, September 11th has already made an imprint on life in Poland in a variety of ways. A special Polish anti-terrorist police unit set up since the attack, recently succeeded in disrupting the channel through which deadly Semtex explosives were being smuggled to terrorists in the West. Two Poles and a Czech were arrested and a cellular phone like device capable of triggering an explosion a continent away was confiscated. Suspicious-looking mailings are now being inspected by postal employees wearing protective clothing and even high-school chemistry labs are under close surveillance these days. Health Minister Grzegorz Opala has been appointed to a new government post in charge of preventing biological terrorism. Although no public threats have been detected in Poland so far, plans are being drawn up to convert schools and other buildings into makeshift hospitals in the even of a major emergency.
In their indiscriminate pursuit of ratings and profits, the sensation-seeking electronic media, especially television, are sowing panic by showing long-disused underground bomb shelters in Warsaw and other major Polish cities, and telling viewers that only a fraction of the population could find refuge there in the event of an attack. Polish TV reports of anthrax hoaxes in America and other countries have also incited imitators in Poland. The first such case was reported in the Baltic port of Gdansk where 11 people came into contact with a white powder found in two separate letters mailed from Gdansk and the United States. Polish health officials are conducting the 72-hour medical tests recommended by the World Health Organization in such cases to rule out the presence of the anthrax virus or harmful substances, but that involves lab costs which Poland's cash-strapped national budget can hardly afford. Those found guilty of such false alarms face jail terms of up to three years as well as payment of all investigation and research costs.
Poland's Defense Ministry recently closed the air space within a 50-kilometer (30-mile) radius of Warsaw to private planes for several days to try out various emergency procedures to be used in the event of a real aerial threat. The ban did not affect airliners, rescue planes or military aircraft. Any pilot flying a plane in the off-limits airspace faced the loss of his pilot's license. Fighter planes based in nearby Minsk Mazowiecki were under orders to prevent any unauthorized aircraft from entering the zone. The drill was part of a nation-wide inspection of airports ordered by the Polish government in response to the September tragedy.
Indirectly, the aftermath of September 11th has alleviated Poland's long-strained relations with Russia. In the wake of the attack on America, the Kremlin no longer views NATO or Poland's membership therein as a threat to Russian security. During a recent visit to Moscow, President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both former communists, pledged to work together to counteract terrorism which Russia has also experienced in recent years at the hands of Muslim separatists from Chechnya. There still exists a difference of opinion on that particular conflict, since most Poles have traditionally supported the Chechen struggle to win independence from Russia. In November, Kwasniewski plans to host a conference in Warsaw on joint Central European efforts to combat terrorism.
The kind of precise, surgical strikes US forces are carrying out with varying success in Afghanistan were recently rehearsed by some 4,000 American and Polish troop at the military training area in Drawsko Pomorskie. They involved the use of Apache assault helicopters practicing the pinpoint destruction of enemy military targets without harming nearby civilian facilities such as schools, hospitals and residential areas. Unfortunately, that is more easily achieved in war games than under actual combat-zone conditions. For the US 5th Army Corps, stained in Heidelberg, Germany, a sad reminder of the recent maneuvers in Poland was an unfortunate helicopter crash that killed one American soldier and seriously injured another.
Regardless of how things develop, many ordinary Poles have already been affected by the post-September scare. Polish travel agencies have hit hard times both because of the deepening recession and the general climate of nervous uncertainty. Many Poles have reconsidered trips to such favorite warm-climate destinations as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey -- all Muslim countries -- or put off plans to fly to America. And the mayor of Warsaw has canceled open-air celebrations scheduled for this coming New Year's Eve in downtown Warsaw. 'Security considerations' were given as the reason for the move.