Poland has been one of the US's most reliable allies in recent years, sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq, but Polish attitudes, while still firmly pro-American, are changing for the worse. Both missions are unpopular and the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has promised to pull Poland's 900 soldiers out of Iraq by the end of next year. He has vowed to continue the deployment of 1,200 troops in Afghanistan, but that has become increasingly controversial because of accusations that Polish troops killed some Afghan civilians.
Seven Polish soldiers are in jail awaiting trial to determine whether they are guilty of murder. We have seen in the US the dangers of a rush to judgment: four marines were convicted of murder by the press and politicians for their actions in Haditha, Iraq, before the charges were dismissed or reduced by the military justice system.
Poland could be repeating the same mistake, or perhaps the soldiers did commit war crimes. Whatever the case, it should not undermine the rationale for the mission. The soldiers are performing a valuable service for Afghanistan and the region by preventing a return of the ruthless Taliban.
That is not the way many Poles see it. When I was in Warsaw and Gdansk a few weeks ago I heard many Poles suggest the deployments do not serve their national interests. This attitude was summed up by the news magazine Polityka , whose cover asked: "Afghanistan: What Are We Doing There?"
The answer that most Poles give is that their troop presence is a favour to the US. That is also how they view the planned deployment of a US ballistic-missile defence system on Polish soil, even though its interceptors will provide more direct defence to Poland and its neighbours than to the US. Accordingly, Poles wonder why they are not getting more in return. Their biggest complaint is that they have to get visas to travel to the US, whereas western Europeans do not.
That is true, but the explanation is innocuous: countries with high visa refusal rates (either for security reasons or because of concerns that its citizens may overstay their visas or work without a permit) are not eligible for visa-less travel to the US. Only 27 countries are enrolled in the visa waiver programme and they are all rich states such as Switzerland and Singapore. Poland has a relatively high visa refusal rate because it is poorer than those states, leading US -immigration authorities to fret about the danger of Poles violating their visas.
Personally I do not mind hard-working Poles coming to the US. I would be delighted if Congress made an exception to the visa rule for Poland and other close allies as a reward for their support. (Congress has recently passed legislation extending the visa-waiver programme to some US allies on a trial basis, but Poland's visa-refusal rate is still too high to qualify.)
But I also think the Polish attitude is deplorable, even perverse. Cannot the Poles see that by helping the US-led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan they help to stabilise a vital region that is closer to Europe than to the US? If either country were to become a breeding ground for international terrorism the fallout would land in Europe first. Admittedly, this is more of a direct danger to western European countries with large numbers of unassimilated Muslim immigrants than to Poland, which has almost no Muslims. To Poland's credit, it is doing more to help the coalition war effort than many western European states that have a more direct stake in the outcome.
On the other hand, Poland faces some security threats that its neighbours do not. It is on the border of one nascent democracy, Ukraine, and two dictatorships, Belarus and Russia, the latter of which seems increasingly threatening.The US, Canada and various European nations are pledged to help defend Poland from any threats, even if they do not impinge directly on other Nato member states.
That is how collective defence works: one for all, all for one. Poland knows well what happens if collective defence fails, having been left to the wolves in 1939 and 1945. Therefore it makes sense for a newly liberated Poland to be a leading practitioner of collective self-defence on the new frontlines of freedom, which are in the Middle East. Polish governments until now have understood the logic of that position. It is dismaying that so many ordinary Poles do not get it.
The author is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World