Poland's participation in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is so expensive that it is hampering efforts to modernize the country's armed forces, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said Wednesday, on his first visit to NATO headquarters.
Poland is still trying to reform and modernize its armed forces some two decades after the fall of Communism. It has 2,630 troops in Afghanistan, the seventh-largest Western contingent in the country and by far the largest from Central and Eastern Europe.
'The problem is that the cost of Poland's engagement in out-of-area operations ... is so significant that it is having an impact on the modernization of the armed forces,' Komorowski said after talks with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Poland therefore wants NATO to 'define a strategy for putting an end to the military presence in Afghanistan' as soon as possible, preferably at a summit in Lisbon Nov 19-20, he said.
NATO currently has close on 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and has launched a push to dislodge Taliban-led militants from their heartlands in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. The year has already seen bloody fighting, and more casualties are expected.
That comes as NATO members are struggling to keep public support for the mission and are facing deep cuts in their defence budgets as a result of the financial crisis.
But despite the constant flow of casualties, 'We are making progress in Afghanistan: today, we have cleared areas, we're holding areas where the Taliban had control before,' Rasmussen stressed.
NATO's current plan is to train the Afghan army and police so that they can start taking over 'lead responsibility' for fighting the Taliban next year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he wants them to have the lead on security throughout the country by 2014.
Komorowski and Rasmussen both stressed the importance of starting the handover in 2011. However, Rasmussen pointed out that any such move would depend on developments on the ground.
'We must stay committed until the job is finished' and the Afghans are capable of running their own country, the Dane said.
November's summit is also expected to approve a new strategic doctrine to guide NATO's policies over the next decade.
That doctrine should focus on planning to defend NATO members against future attacks, rather than looking at more out-of-area operations, Komorowski said.