Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Poland - still willing, despite the media feeding frenzy 

I knew it was going to be a major story - and a large club to whack Bush and Howard over their heads - when the dumb FM radio station I was listening to on the way back from work decided to make it the only piece of international news in their bulletin: Poland is withdrawing from Iraq! There we go, I thought, prepare for all the "Coalition of the Willing crumbles" and a "blow to the President" stories.

"Poland announced overnight that it would pull its 3,500 troops out of Iraq by the end of next year," said breathlessly Australia's public broadcaster ABC. The story - and all the details - are somewhat more complex - more nuanced, some would say) than that:

On Monday, Polish Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily that Poland might scale back its involvement in Iraq over the course of next year: reducing the current force of 2,500 by 40% to 1,500 in January, around the election time, and possibly withdrawing most - but not necessarily all - of the remaining troops by the end of the year. Szmajdzinski thought that this date was appropriate as it coincides with the expiry of the UN resolution 1546 authorising the Iraqi election, and that more than ten months after the election Iraq would have much less need for overseas troops.

Szmajdzinski got instantly rapped on the knuckles for making his statement. The Prime Minister Marek Belka says he was not consulted, and Szmajdzinski later admitted that he was merely putting forward his personal opinion. Belka says (link in Polish, my translation) that no decision has been made, but "the more we all speculate about it, the more we're inviting Al Qaida." Elsewhere (link in Polish, my translation) Belka said that while the Polish contingent will be reduced in size in January, "Minister Szmajdzinski is an optimist if he thinks that the situation in Iraq will become sufficiently normal by the end of 2005 that there won't be any more need for our troops."

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (he, ignored by John Kerry) said subsequently that Poland might indeed start scaling back its forces in January 2005 and finish withdrawal in late 2005, but - and this is a big but - nothing has been decided yet and won't be for another few months. This is what Kwasniewski actually said:
"I hope the election will happen. Then the election will give (Iraq) a new government with a strong mandate, and then we will speak with the new Iraqi government about the presence of international forces -- including Polish forces -- in the year 2005... That's the reason why we are speaking with the Iraqis, with our coalition partners, with the United States about reduction (in) the first of January 2005, and maybe to finish our mission to the end of 2005, but both elements are question marks because the discussions are ongoing." [my emphasis]
The talk of withdrawal has to be seen in the context of internal Polish politics at the moment. The current left-wing minority government is facing a vote of no confidence in the Parliament on October 15. The Alliance of Democratic Left's minor coalition partner in the government, the Union of Labor, has asked the Alliance to start thinking about withdrawing troops, otherwise it will start thinking about withdrawing its support. Not surprisingly, the government is feeling rather stressed at the moment.

The government is on its nose politically - and Iraq is the least of its problems; the Alliance is expected to be annihilated at the election sometime mid next year. Most importantly, the right-wing opposition, which is likely to form the next government, is not very happy about the Defence Minister's ideas either (link in Polish, my translation): Bronisław Komorowski, the leader of the Citizens Platform has this to say: "This is sheer irresponsibility... These sorts of fundamental foreign policy decisions have to be made in consultation with the Parliament and announced by the Prime Minister or the President. Minister Szmajdzinski is de facto trying to bind the new [post next year's election] government and the new president now, as it won't be his decision then."

Elsewhere (link in Polish, my translation), Komorowski says "It's shameful to be trying to escape from one's responsibility, in the circumstances where Poland officially took over administration of part of Iraq and never gave any inkling that it intends to pull out prematurely." Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party (the Citizens Platform's likely future coalition partner) adds: "If we are to withdraw, it must be coordinated withdrawal, not an escape, which will embarrass us and destroy everything that we worked for. If we're already in Iraq, if Polish soldiers died there, then we can't let that go to waste. Our presence in Iraq is politically beneficial." Kaczynski adds (link in Polish, my translation): "The new government [next year] will make its own decisions... Thanks to our involvement in Iraq Poland has entered American 'political market' and has won a lot of sympathy there. Now the government wants to waste all that good will for own political benefit." Kaczynski obviously thinks that the talk of withdrawal is a cynical and opportunistic ploy to win back the deeply unpopular government some public support.

Polish Army is also taken aback by the whole controversy (link in Polish, my translation). One General Staff officer is quoted as saying that normal rotation, without any decreases in size, is currently being planned for the Polish contingent. Another officer says that the mission in Iraq is quite beneficial to Polish soldiers: "our soldiers are coming back as true professionals, whose expertise gained in Iraq we can then use in other missions."

A final comment from me: while too much has obviously been made of various comments by Polish government officials, and while the opposition, if anything, remains strongly committed to the mission, it has to be said that involvement in Iraq is becoming increasingly unpopular among the Polish people. Partly this is because the government has spent a lot of money on Iraq during difficult economic times, partly because America's good will and gratitude have so far failed to translate into anything tangible, such as less stringent visa requirements, more military aid, relocating US bases or greater economic cooperation. I hope that this is something that the White House can address - the sooner the better.


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