Warsaw antes up
Poland's foreign minister pledges air support for Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan
Michael Petrou | Feb 4, 2008 | 05:19:08
Also at Macleans.ca: Paul Wells follows rumblings that French paratroopers may soon join Canadian troops in Kandahar
Poland is putting two of the eight helicopters it is sending to Afghanistan "at the disposal of Canada," the country’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, disclosed Sunday in an interview with Maclean’s.
The pledge goes some way toward meeting the conditions Prime Minister Stephen Harper has placed on extending Canada’s military mission in Kandahar province beyond February 2009. Harper accepted the recommendations of an independent panel chaired by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley, which argued that Canadian soldiers should stay in Kandahar on two conditions–that they are joined by another battle group of about 1,000 soldiers and that they secure the use of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Poland is also sending 400 soldiers to Afghanistan to join the approximately 1,200 already in the country. Sikorski said they will operate "more or less" where most Polish soldiers are currently deployed, in the southeast of the country, bordering Pakistan, but added: “I can’t talk about the details of our deployment plan, but there will be more scope for Polish-Canadian cooperation.” He confirmed that Polish special forces are already operating in Kandahar and work closely with Canadians there.
Sikorski said Poland promised Canada the use of its helicopters after he met with Maxime Bernier, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, in Brussels in December. But neither the Canadian nor the Polish government has previously announced the arrangement.
Radek Sikorski has longstanding ties to Afghanistan. In the 1980s, he was a student activist with the anti-communist Solidarity movement. He fled to Britain as a political refugee. After completing a degree at the University of Oxford, Sikorski travelled to Afghanistan in 1986 and spent much of the next three years there with the mujahedeen who were trying to drive the Soviets from their country.
"The Afghans were fighting for their liberty," he tells Maclean’s by way of an explanation for why he joined them.
Sikorski’s official government biography notes that he worked in Afghanistan as a reporter. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Asked if he was in Afghanistan as a journalist or a combatant, Sikorski admits, "A bit of both … fighting mainly with a pen." At this, Sikorski allows himself a smile. He is a likeable but rather intense man, without being solemn or dour. He prefers to be called by the diminutive "Radek," rather than the more formal "Radoslaw."
Sikorski lived for more than a month in the mountains and caves of Tora Bora, when it was a mujahedeen base from which to attack the Soviets. Two decades later, Tora Bora was where Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda allies made their last stand before slipping away, almost certainly into Pakistan. Sikorski also got to know Kandahar province well. He spent weeks dodging Soviet patrols on the road connecting Kabul and Kandahar.
Today, these landmarks are once again fought over by Afghans and foreigners. But Sikorski rejects any suggestion that there are political similarities between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and NATO’s current intervention in the country.
"The Soviets invaded a country which had been taken over by the Communist Party through a military coup and which had killed 200,000 of their own people. And the Soviets, it is estimated, killed about a million Afghans in area bombing and artillery shelling and by mines," he says.
"We are there under a UN resolution and at the invitation of the Afghan government. And we don’t want Afghanistan for anything, unlike the Soviets. We don’t want to be there for a day longer than the Afghans want us there. So I don’t think the political realities could be more different."
Sikorski’s accent when speaking English still bears the traces of his exile in Britain. His political convictions have also been shaped by the Cold War. When he was a student activist, many doubted that democracy could flourish in the eastern European countries under Soviet occupation. The same is often said today about the Middle East. Sikorski doesn’t buy it.