Poland sets a 'good example' as it speeds up its troop deployment
By David Rennie in Warsaw
Poland is rushing forward the deployment of more than 1,000 extra troops to Afghanistan to assist hard-pressed British and allied troops.
Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish defence minister, pledged yesterday that the troops, including a battalion of the country's best soldiers, would arrive in February, six months earlier than planned.
The deployment means that coalition forces serving in the perilous south of Afghanistan will soon be able to call on a rescue force of 500 Polish paratroopers, trained to fly in by helicopter to support units that are surrounded.
Mr Sikorski told The Daily Telegraph that the men would be offered as an airborne rapid reaction reserve force to the commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).
The paratroopers will be joined by special forces troops as well as officers for Isaf's headquarters in Kabul. They will be offered without any of the "caveats" that hobble troops from nations like Germany, Belgium, or Sweden. Some European troops covered by caveats are not allowed to leave their bases, or are banned from taking part in combat missions, or are confined to relatively safe areas.
Poland, the largest nation of what has been called "New Europe", hopes to set a "good example" to the richer Nato members from "Old Europe" by offering its forces without restrictions. The rescue battalion will be based around the elite 18th Bielski Air Assault Battalion, hundreds of whose soldiers are training with American forces at a mountain training camp in the south of Poland.
Though they normally use Polish and Soviet-built transport and attack helicopters, they will probably use US aircraft in Afghanistan. That could prove a tactful decision, given grim Afghan memories of Soviet attack helicopters.
"The Afghan mission will probably be the most demanding mission since the Polish participation in the storming of Berlin in 1945," said Mr Sikorski, an Oxford-educated former dissident who travelled alone through Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a war reporter.
The rescue troops will be based at the US air base at Bagram, outside Kabul, and will be formally tasked with helping allied forces in the east. But Isaf commanders will be free to send the Poles to the south, where British, Dutch and Canadian units have frequently found themselves under intense attack.
"If our allies are in need, we will be going to the rescue. We want to set a good example," said Mr Sikorski. If other nations lifted their caveats, Nato might be able to "juggle" its existing forces, he added. "Then we would have enough troops to establish security." Though the military is a source of pride in Poland – a conservative, deeply Roman Catholic nation that contributed its armed forces to the Allied effort in the Second World War – opinion polls find that the public is strongly against the deployment in Afghanistan, which follows the sending of thousands of troops to Iraq. Mr Sikorski said his government remained determined to carry out its promise to send forces to the Nato-led mission in Afghanistan. Poland, which has been repeatedly invaded by its neighbours over the centuries, sees Nato membership as a vital insurance policy.
"Afghanistan is a very foreign place for us, we have no national interests there," said Mr Sikorski. "So, it's a challenge to explain to our public why we need to be there. But it works both ways. Poland is probably a fairly remote place for our Nato allies, but we expect to be assisted if needed."