Poland's Afghan conundrum

By Haroon Rashid
BBC News, Warsaw

image captionPoland has around 2,600 troops in eastern Afghanistan

As efforts to rein in violence in Afghanistan fail - and recession hits the economies of coalition countries hard - most of the nations with forces in the war-torn country are seriously considering the earliest possible pullout.

Their leader, the United States, has already laid down a rough timetable, but smaller allies such as Poland are also seriously mulling their options.

However, many believe that, despite domestic pressures, an early pullout is not as easy as it may seem.

Poland has around 2,600 troops in the eastern province of Ghazni. They not only try to maintain a fragile peace, but also undertake some development work.

Poland spends $1.5m on its military presence and around $5m on the development side. The relatively small contingent has seen 20 of its soldiers die.

This is because Ghazni is just like the rest of the country - not peaceful.

Despite a small presence of foreign forces, several of Ghazni's districts are under Taliban control. The majority population is ethnic Pashtun, while the minority comprises Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek people.

Like the rest of Afghanistan, the most violence-prone districts are those with a Pashtun majority.

The district of Nawa, only a few kilometres from the Pakistani border, has been under Taliban control for more than two years. Aid workers have also deserted Ajristan district because of security fears.

That is why, overall, things are not going Poland's way in Ghazni.

Boosting Afghan forces

Col Piotr Lukasiewicz has recently returned from Afghanistan after a three-year stint as defence attache.

"In last year's presidential elections, 30 violent incidents were recorded [in Ghazni], but last month's general elections saw these incidents double with some deaths too," he told the BBC at the defence ministry.

In Rashidan district, only three votes were cast. But Col Lukasiewicz argues that the nature of people's involvement is different in presidential and general elections, hence the increase in violence.

Top of the agenda for the Polish troops is to build up the Afghan security forces as quickly as possible.

"We need at least 8,000 Afghan personnel to ensure peace in Ghazni, but so far we have been only able to train half of them," he says.

For Col Lukasiewicz, not all is lost.

"In the past, out of a total of 19 districts administrators, 13 used to sit in Kabul or Dubai and run the show, but now only five districts are without their administrators. This is definitely an improvement."

Over the question of whether militants from across the border in Pakistan are still a nuisance, Col Lukasiewicz says little: "We do get reports of local security forces arresting one or two militants from Pakistan, but not in such big numbers as we feared."

Ghazni Governor Musa Khan Akbarzai, talking to the BBC's Urdu Service, was not so diplomatic.

"A lot depends on our neighbours like Pakistan. Militants are coming from across the border and that's why Pakistan's help is crucial."

The Polish military leadership believes that Afghanistan needs more development rather than more foreign troops.

"We can't leave this country to drift into medieval times again. We have to stand by it," Col Lukasiewicz says.

But Polish diplomats believe some progress is being made.

"We definitely are behind in establishing a modern society or true democracy, but we are making some headway in some other sectors," says Jerzy Wieclaw, head of the South Asia division at the foreign ministry.

Hard slog

So why are the allies in Afghanistan not making the progress they desperately wish for?

image captionHamid Karzai is increasingly recognised as a strong leader

Col Lukasiewicz says the alliance lost interest in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion of 2001 because of the Iraq war - which helped the Taliban to stage a comeback.

"We really started paying attention again in 2006," he says.

Some military analysts think one reason for the slow progress is that many coalition countries are more interested in military successes than in development goals.

The Polish authorities believe Afghan President Hamid Karzai is steadily coming out as a strong leader.

Col Lukasiewicz says President Karzai can no longer be called just the "mayor of Kabul".

"He is the only man who can keep Afghanistan united. I had to wait for three years for my defence attache's vehicle [number] plate, since it could only be issued with the president's signature. He has too much on his shoulder, I think."

On a national level, if the Western coalition cannot find an alternative to Mr Karzai, the situation at the provincial level is very different.

In the last seven years, six governors have been replaced.

Polish opposition

Despite making its small contribution, public opinion in Poland remains opposed to their involvement in Afghanistan.

A common question among many Poles on the street is: "What are we doing in Afghanistan? It's not our war."

Janusz Reiter is president and founder of the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw.

He says Poland is in Afghanistan not because of the EU, but because of Nato.

"Our people have not been told properly why we are there. Why is it important, because of global terrorism? Maybe people here don't want to listen to this, but that is what they need to be told."

In recent electioneering, the new Polish president promised to withdraw from Afghanistan in the next few years.

But in Polish diplomatic and military circles, it is said that this would only be decided after analysing ground realties.

Col Lukasiewicz says they cannot give a deadline: "Our withdrawal would be decided by our performance rather than a date."

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