KRAKOW — Poland offended many of its European allies and enraged Russia when it signed an agreement with the U.S. last year to host part of the missile defense shield on its territory, aiming for a security payoff.
Now there is a growing realization in Warsaw that the anti-missile base may never be built, so the race is on to cement a closer relationship with the U.S. military — an element of the pact signed last summer.
On the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers held here this week, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich signed an agreement with Robert Gates, his U.S. counterpart, on cooperation between the two countries’ special forces.
While the administration of George W. Bush had sold the shield as a defense against a possible missile attack by a rogue state like Iraq, that reasoning was never enormously convincing in Poland.
“It’s not a particularly realistic scenario,” said a Polish defense official.
Instead, Warsaw saw the shield as a way of improving Poland’s security by getting a key U.S. base, staffed with U.S. troops, on Polish territory in case of a future attack from the only country that realistically poses a threat to Poland — Russia.
The new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama wants proof that the technologically daunting missile defense plan actually works before continuing to pour billions into its development.
“We have to be patient and wait until the review by the new administration in Washington is completed and we get a clearer signal,” Klich said.
Poland’s brutal experiences during the 20th century have convinced the country that it needs a multi-layered series of agreements with its allies in order to guarantee its security. During World War II, Poland was betrayed by its French and British allies in 1939 after the German invasion, and then abandoned to the Soviet Union after the war.
While NATO, which Poland joined a decade ago, is Warsaw’s key defense agreement, Poland has been very careful to cultivate a special relationship with Washington that goes beyond its formal NATO links.
“Poland needs the concrete physical presence of the alliance on its territory,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, and a possible candidate for the new NATO secretary general.
Polish special forces took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, making it one of only three US allies — the others being Britain and Australia — to take part in the initial fighting. Poland was also one of the earliest and most robust contributors to the fight in Afghanistan, where it has 1,600 soldiers.
“The special relationship was so slavish during the Bush administration that Poland would even go along with Washington when it was actively working to destroy the European Union and weaken NATO by promoting ideas like the coalition of the willing,” said Roman Kuzniar, one of Klich’s advisers.
Warsaw has become more confident in its alliances; even withdrawing its contingent from Iraq last year, but it still sees the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of its independence.
Now that it is no longer in Iraq, Afghanistan has become Poland’s most important foreign mission. The global economic crisis has forced Poland to pull its troops out of missions in Chad, Lebanon and the Golan Heights, but there is no talk of reducing the contingent in Afghanistan.
“The credibility of the alliance in being tested in Afghanistan,” said Klich.
That is not just the view from Warsaw. Afghanistan was by far the most important topic of the Krakow summit.
Gates arrived just days after Obama decided to increase the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan by 17,000 troops, but he was unable to extract pledges of significant new troop commitments from the European allies, where the Afghan war remains quite unpopular.
Germany offered only 600 new soldiers, part of a group to increase security during this summer’s elections, while Poland and France were unprepared to add any more troops.
Speaking as the summit began, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s secretary general, predicted that Western troops would be fighting there “for the foreseeable future.” The goal, he said, is to train the Afghan army and police to carry more of the load, but he admitted that Western aid would be needed in Afghanistan “for generations.”
“We are frankly not where we had hoped to be by now,” he said. “This effort must succeed. If we allow extremism and terrorism a safe haven in that region, we guarantee ourselves and our children a much more dangerous world.”