Poland's military commitment to NATO ends in political turmoil

Poland's decision to send 1,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of a NATO multinational force is seen in Europe as a logical consequence of the country's support for American-led operations in the war on terror. But for the first time, the national consensus on Poland's role in such missions seems to have been broken, with the opposition accusing the government of sending Polish troops into combat, rather than a peacekeeping mission. Slawek Szefs reports from Warsaw:

What surprised the Law and Justice ruling coalition partners had been the lack of consultations on the decision concerning the scope of Polish participation in the NATO Afghan mission as well as its character and duration.

The operation will cost Polish taxpayers some 75 million euros and for the first time Polish troops would be engaged in direct combat and not peace keeping duties. Another serious reservation, and not only of ruling coalition members, has been the place and time this decision was announced. Opponents were quick to claim that the Prime Minister's working visit to the United States and Washington, have not been the best choice, if only for the sake of reactions and comments.

But this, at least on the part of top American officials such as chairman of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert, has been very positive.

'We had a very cordial discussion, talking about how we are working together, the common responsibilities that we have against fighting terrorism in the world. Poland is a very strong ally and a good friend.'

President Lech Kaczynski, the PM's twin brother, also sees no harm in this Polish pledge and fully supports the decision.

"We've been in Afghanistan, Iraq. We are and will be present even in greater number in Lebanon. Polish soldiers are in Congo, the Golan Heights and in the Balkans. Such is Poland's policy and it hasn't started with my term in office, or the government of Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and then Jaroslaw Kaczynski. It's a continuation of earlier policies."

Still, former President Lech Walesa has been critical of the government decision.

'I've always had a different concept. The world is badly organised, it needs global structures. I'd manage a different solution under the circumstances.'

As of February next year, one thousand Polish troops will be stationed in Bagram and operating in the eastern parts of Afghanistan under direct NATO command. The duration of their combat mission against the Taliban has initially been set for one year, but experts are certain it will last much longer.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO Secretary General, was extremely pleased upon hearing the news from Washington on the Polish declaration.

'I can do more with more forces. So, it is important, this Polish decision to answer the request for more forces in Afghanistan. This is a very important operation for NATO. It is NATO's first priority and we're doing well.'

Wojciech Luczak, editor of the RAPORT military magazine, reminds of ideas outlined by former Polish decision makers and points to their continuation being a reflection of NATO concepts.

"There was something like a policy declared during the last coalition government that Polish presence in Iraq should be dramatically decreased in favor of Afghanistan, in favor of a NATO led mission. Everyone said we are in Iraq as an American ally and not of the North Atlantic Alliance. Former NATO Secretary General, lord Robertson and the current Secretary have asked many times about increasing European military presence of NATO members for such an important mission as Afghanistan. It's the creation of security and safe zone for developing a new future."