By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Poland has asked for additional U.S. military assistance to modernize its own forces as it considers whether to extend the presence of Polish troops in Iraq next year, according to Polish and U.S. officials.
Although Warsaw has stopped short of conditioning its Iraq decision on the request for aid, it has made it clear that the two are linked, saying the $600 million it has spent on the Iraq operation has siphoned funds from plans to upgrade its own military.
Radoslaw Sikorski, defense minister in Poland's new conservative government, raised the issue in a meeting here this week with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and presented other Pentagon officials with a list of desired spending options. A senior Pentagon official said on Thursday that the list is being reviewed.
The deliberations come at a time when other key partners in the U.S.-led coalition are withdrawing their forces or debating pullouts or reductions.
Several U.S. officials familiar with efforts to hold the coalition together confidently predicted that nearly all of the 30 countries in the multinational force will keep some troops in Iraq next year. But the officials acknowledged that the number is certain to dwindle from the current total of about 21,000, and to change in character from combat infantry to training advisers.
The Pentagon has drawn up plans to begin reducing U.S. troop levels from more than 155,000 to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006, if security conditions permit.
Against this shifting backdrop, Poland's aid request puts the Bush administration on the spot. A boost in U.S. military assistance that appears tied to Poland's continued involvement in Iraq could encourage other coalition partners to seek enhanced U.S. aid packages. On the other hand, shortchanging Poland risks alienating an important European ally.
"As we see it, it's in the joint U.S.-Polish interest to show that it's good to be America's friend," Sikorski said in an interview before flying back to Warsaw.
One Pentagon official involved in considering Poland's request noted that the United States has already done much to assist Polish military reforms, providing about $220 million in grants in the past decade. "We've tried to help Poland in a lot of ways," said Peter Flory, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for international security policy.
Flory called Poland a valuable "strategic partner" but said the United States is also trying to weigh aid requests from other allies. He rejected the idea that security assistance would be awarded as any "sort of a quid pro quo" for involvement in Iraq.
"One of the main factors is, we have a finite security-assistance budget," he said in a phone interview. "It still doesn't allow us to do all the things that we might want to do."
Polish troops have played a key role in Iraq, commanding a multinational division in a region south of Baghdad and helping to train part of the new Iraqi Army's 8th Division. Under political pressure at home to end its involvement in Iraq, the Warsaw government trimmed its contingent this year from 2,500 troops to about 1,500 and is due to decide on the rest by the end of this month.
"We're a couple of weeks away from certifying jointly with the U.S. that Iraq's 8th Division is capable of taking command of the area" where Polish forces have operated, Sikorski said. "So we think our mission is pretty much complete. We could hand over control in January and be done with it."
But the Pentagon has requested that Poland continue to provide military trainers and a small combat component, the minister said. He indicated that Poland's decision will rest largely on the situation in Iraq and on a desire to ensure that the effort begun by the multinational coalition eventually succeeds. At the same time, he stressed, his government cannot ignore the price its military is paying.
Sikorski noted that the $600 million spent on Iraq constitutes roughly 10 percent of Poland's annual $6 billion defense budget. The expense has caused Warsaw authorities to delay plans to transform Poland's oversized, outdated Soviet-era military into more streamlined units capable of operating easily in NATO, which Poland joined in 1999.
"It's a very significant drain on resources that could have been spent on upgrading our capabilities," Sikorski said. "I see it as a perverse incentive -- that countries that are helpful to the U.S. in the emergencies it faces are finding themselves out of pocket and delaying their modernization."
In conversations with U.S. officials and public comments, Sikorski has outlined a Polish plan to develop "expeditionary" units designed to deploy quickly to foreign hot spots with other NATO or international coalition forces. As a sign of its commitment to such operations, Poland has agreed to take command of the NATO force in Afghanistan in 2007.