Poles in Iraq XI: Poles Out of Iraq?

“He forgot Poland” George W. Bush famously complained during that first presidential debate last week. And so John Kerry apparently did. And what about Poland, and specifically its roughly 2,500 soldiers now serving in Iraq? We’re out of there by December, 2005, no matter what happens, is the essence of what Polish defense minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski announced in an interview published yesterday in the leading Polish national newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

A pretty definitive statement, you would think. And, by the way, a resounding scoop for Gazeta, since no other on-line Polish newspaper treated Szmajdzinkski’s remarks until today, and that mostly in reaction to the splash he had made in yesterday’s interview. But unfortunately it’s not so simple as all that: Gazeta had several pieces accompanying that interview – as do other newspapers today – basically passing on a message of “don’t listen to Szmajdzinski!” from other leading Polish politicians, to include such figures as the President and Prime Minister! The situation is muddled, then, to say the least.


Anyway, as to the interview itself: it’s a long one, conducted by Gazeta Wyborcza’s Pawel Wronski, and Szmajdzinski spends most of it mouthing the usual party-line about Iraq that you would expect. The Polish soldiers are only there to render assistance to the Iraqi people, who regularly express their gratitude – although he also admits to the expression of other sentiments in the form of regular bullets and mines aimed at Polish soldiers, particularly as they travel along the country’s roads. And there’s no more dispute among nations, either with the US or within the EU, as to whether there should still be forces “helping” in Iraq, Szmajdzinski also declares – after all, he points out, NATO has just approved in-country training for Iraqi police and security forces.

Towards the middle of the interview Szmajdzinski foreshadows what is to come, when he states that “Poland is a very important element [in Iraq]. Any decision we make about suddenly pulling out our forces could therefore cause a domino effect.” What’s more, he characterizes as “rather doubtful” the prospect that has been floated lately of a Arab peace-keeping force moving into the country after the January elections.

Finally, at the very end, it comes. Poland had already announced plans to “significantly reduce” its forces in Iraq after those January elections; when asked how the Americans had reacted to that, Szmajdzinski replies “calmly.” Then (prefacing his statement with moim zdaniem, or “in my opinion,” let it be noted), he firmly ties the date of complete Polish withdrawal to the end-date envisioned by UN Security Council resolution 1546 for Iraq’s status of limited political sovereignty, namely December, 2005. Two-and-a-half years occupation in Iraq is enough, he says, especially in view of the strain the mission puts on Poland’s armed forces. But note that all that may very well not mean complete Polish withdrawal from Iraq; in the minister’s view, there would still be room after December, 2005, for small numbers of staff, training personnel, observers, personnel like that. But of course these hardly count for as much as thousands of men with guns on the ground.


In his lead-in article to the interview, Wronski terms Szmajdzinski’s statements “a sensational declaration.” Admittedly, that is his own interview he is talking about; but still, those statements do set a clear deadline, and also fix that deadline according to the UN Security Council resolution and nothing else – no sort of turn of events in Iraq that might make the Polish government change its mind and keep the troops in there longer. The Americans certainly seem like they will remain in Iraq longer, Wronski notes – estimates range from five to eight years to completely secure the country, and Szmajdzinski also has a meeting coming up with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to look forward to now. His interview is also rather “sensational” in that Szmadzinski finally breaks what has up to now been the Polish government’s policy of not setting any such deadline for withdrawal, even while repeatedly being called up to do so by opposition political parties, and indeed by some sub-elements of the ruling SLD party. All of this is spurred by the growing unpopularity among the Polish electorate of their soldiers’ presence in Iraq.

Then again, maybe it is still the Polish government’s policy to not set any such deadlines. Maybe Szmajdzinski was out on his lonesome with what he told Gazeta Wyborcza. Let’s start at the top: here (“Kwasniewski: There Is No Decision About Withdrawing Troops from Iraq”) the Polish President tells Gazeta that withdrawal might be at the end of 2005, but it might very well not be; it’s still hard to say, and what Szmajdzinski stated, says the President, is but his own opinion. (Kwasniewski happened to make this statement to the newspaper after a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac; the report doesn’t say where this occurred, but other sources on the Net say that Kwasniewski was visiting Paris.) Or take this interview with Polish premier Marek Belka – he’s Szmajdzinski’s immediate boss, you know – in the other leading national Polish newspaper, Rzeczpospolita. The title of the interview is “We Will Stay in Iraq”; in it, Belka characterizes Szmajdzinski’s statements as “not the position of the government.” Revealingly, he even calls his defense minister an “optimist” for thinking that things will look so peachy in Iraq by December, 2005, that it will even be possible for Polish troops to leave by then. And then there is Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz – he’s Szmajdzinski’s colleague, you know, and they are really supposed to work closely together. But here Cimoszewicz characterizes Szmajdzinski’s statements to Gazeta as blad natury warsztatowej (my translation: “a workman-like mistake”). Otherwise, he is content to counter reporters’ various questions (like: Didn’t such statements harm Poland’s relations with the United States?) by simply repeating Prime Minister Belka’s assertion that what Szmajdzinski said was not approved by him.


Topping it all off, we have a brief commentary piece from Igor Janke in today’s Rzeczpospolita (Credibility is Necessary). Janke notes that everyone else in the government was surprised and even dismayed by Szmajdzinski’s setting of that December, 2005 deadline: yes, we’ve already discussed the President on down, but it seems that top Polish generals also knew nothing of what their civilian boss was talking about. One other small thing is that the US government did not know ahead of time what Szmajdzinski would be saying, and indeed only learned of it by reading the proverbial newspapers. What got into the Defense Minister’s head? According to Janke, he was probably just trying some political trick, trying to make the right noises to strengthen the position of his party, the SLD, and of himself within it too, if possible. After all, the strong undercurrent to this entire story is that a majority of the Polish people want out of Iraq, immediately; that’s some strong political pressure that it may not be possible to withstand indefinitely. In the meantime, though, Janke concludes by pointing out the uncomfortable but obvious: the credibility of the Polish government has taken a big hit in this affair.

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