Polish presence in Iraq raises serious questions


World View: Poland joined the US-led coalition in Iraq as one of its first members. It had never properly debated involvement in Iraq, nor its lack of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) - the main US argument for the war. Poland, America's most fierce ally in central Europe, has been honoured by Washington with command over one of its four zones, writes Piotr Kaczynski

The other three zones are managed by the Americans (two zones) and the British forces. The so-called Polish zone was to be one of the most stable places in Iraq. However, Polish troops have been given a very difficult task: to co-ordinate and manage the work of troops coming from over 20 countries stretching from Mongolia and Fiji to Spain and Ukraine. They performed well and continue to play a major role in Iraq today, after the Mongolians, Fijians, Spanish and Ukrainians have left.

But the continuing involvement of Polish troops (as the Polish president recently stated - if necessary, this will go on into 2007) raises several points. First, why was there no debate in Poland on involvement in Iraq? Poland went to Iraq for different reasons than most other nations involved. It was hardly ever about WMDs.

The decision was a mixture of two elements. First, the feeling of "mission": a country that has suffered so much for so long a time now helps other nations to abandon their dictators in order to live in peace and democracy. This was a beautiful dream and no one expected chaos after the military action was over. Second, the US asked Poland to go. No one in Poland wanted to refuse this favour.

But what makes Poles support the war in Iraq? In fact they do not. Public support for the war was always low and there were always more people opposed to any Polish military presence in the Gulf. Yet those popular feelings were not radical. People were against Polish involvement but they were also against using Iraq in political debates.

Further, there was a political consensus among all major Polish political parties in support of staying in Iraq. This became shaky by late 2005, when some parties began to argue that Poland should pull back its forces. Minister for Defence Jerzy Szmajdzinski has even ordered a withdrawal. Yet, after the 2005 elections, the new Polish government and president have decided to prolong the mandate for 2006, maybe even for 2007.

The main case for staying in Iraq after the war is the stability factor. Leaving Iraq right now would be to abandon the people of Iraq, who are asking for help, Polish officials say. Yet there is also a different reason. To date, Poland has contributed a lot to Iraq, including financially. Staying longer in the Gulf possibly gives Polish companies a better chance of being involved in rebuilding the country once the instability ends. This applies also to oil.

However, it would be unfair to say that Poland went to Iraq only because of oil and economic contracts. For Poland, involvement in Iraq meant that it began to be perceived in many European countries as ultra pro-American.

Because the war coincided with strong debates over the European constitution, many Europeans viewed Poland, the biggest of the new EU member countries, as pro-American - which consequently means Eurosceptic.

This is a false and unfortunate statement, yet quite popular. Few realise that Poles are one of the most pro-European nations in the EU. Currently 80 per cent of the population supports EU membership. After accession this indicator has never been lower than 60 per cent.

Last year one opinion poll showed that 25 per cent of Poles would support the creation of a United States of Europe, one of the highest such proportions in Europe.

At the same time, Poles do support strong ties with America. Poles believe in unity of the West, and any problems between America and Europe are perceived in Warsaw as disturbing and unnecessary, because there are much bigger problems in the world and Europe, such as Russian actions against human rights and all the challenges of the Middle East.

So when will Polish troops leave Iraq? The answer is not simple. The number of Polish troops there has dropped from 2,500 initially to 900 today.

Poland will stay as long as the Americans and the Iraqis want a Polish presence there.

A natural date for withdrawal is June 2007, because in July Poland undertakes a new and challenging military task: it will take over command of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

That will be the moment for Polish politicians and generals to take a decision on Iraq.

Piotr Maciej Kaczynski is EU analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw