Why Poland has soured on Afghanistan

WARSAW — When Joe Biden, the U.S. vice president, passed through Warsaw a couple of weeks ago, he larded unabashed praise on Poland for its participation in the war in Afghanistan.

“Polish soldiers in Afghanistan are not just soldiers,” gushed Biden. “They are warriors doing an incredibly difficult job.”

But the tribute didn’t have much of an effect in Poland, where a vast majority of the public has had enough of the Afghan mission. In an opinion poll conducted in September by the CBOS organization, 76 percent of Poles were opposed to having troops in Afghanistan, and 77 percent want the operation wrapped up immediately and soldiers withdrawn — a 12 percentage point increase from a survey taken in June.

The erosion of public support in Poland is a sign of a wider problem for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Similar attitudes are cropping up in Europe and in the U.S., as people are beginning to tire of a war that has lasted more than eight years, with no immediate prospect of a successful conclusion. The lack of tangible benefits — such as contracts and improved relations with the U.S. — from Poland's long mission in Iraq has also soured the country on its Afghanistan involvement.

Poland has been one of the most valuable Western allies in that fight. Unlike military contingents from France and Germany, Poland has undertaken a fighting mission in the unstable south of the country — its 2,000 soldiers are in charge of Ghazni province, which lies on the strategic highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

So far 15 Polish soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, and each death sets off a media frenzy that further lowers support for the mission.

“It confirms yet again that the mission in Afghanistan is one which has changed from a stabilization mission into open war,” Pawel Gras, the government spokesman, said after the last deaths — two soldiers killed in October by a roadside explosion.

The financial cost has also been steep. Despite the stress imposed on public finances by the economic crisis, the government intends to spend $219 million on its Afghan mission this year, while next year equipment costs alone are expected to come to $275 million.

The long war is beginning to strain both politicians and the Polish military. The former head of the army, Gen. Waldemar Skrzypczak, ran into a political firestorm this summer when he openly criticized the defense ministry for not sending adequate supplies and equipment to the troops in Afghanistan. He made the impolitic comments during the funeral of a captain killed in a gunfight with the Taliban.

Skrzypczak stepped down after Bogdan Kilch, the defense minister, reacted with outrage, saying that the general had violated the principle of civilian control over the military. But almost immediately after the outburst, the Polish government announced it was sending more equipment to Afghanistan.

For Poland, being in Afghanistan makes more strategic sense than its previous involvement in Iraq, where at its height Poland had about 2,600 troops and was in charge of a province in central Iraq. That war, which cost the lives of 21 Polish troops, was always seen as a way of building closer ties with the U.S., as well as potentially gaining lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq.

In the end Polish companies did little business in Iraq, and Poles were embittered by the sense that little progress was made on issues like getting significant U.S. financial help in rebuilding the Polish military, and eliminating annoyances like Poles being forced to get visas to travel to the United States. When Donald Tusk, the current prime minister, won the 2007 elections, he pledged to withdraw Polish troops from Iraq, and they were pulled out a year ago.

While being in Iraq strained ties with allies like France and Germany, and produced few tangible benefits, the Afghan mission, undertaken under NATO auspices, is seen as a key part of Poland’s obligations to the alliance.

“That’s the price we’re paying to be in the Atlantic alliance,” said Gras. “The price so that, if there is ever a situation that there would be such a need, our allies would come to help us.”

That means that, unlike in Iraq, Poland will only think about pulling out as part of a wider rethink of the Afghan war by the Western allies.

“It’s hard to imagine an effective NATO without success in Afghanistan. If the alliance is to be a guarantor of security for its members, it has to leave that country with its head held high,” Klich said in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper.