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Poland, Canada call for more troops in Afghanistan

A Polish official called on NATO member states to increase their military commitments to Afghanistan responding to a similar call from Canada.

Canada's call for reinforcements in southern Afghanistan brought about a sharply worded echo from a like-minded NATO ally yesterday, when Poland's Foreign Minister warned “free-riding”countries within the alliance that they must commit troops to Afghanistan's most dangerous regions.

Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski backed up his pledge to be a staunch Canadian ally at NATO meetings with a promise to share two of eight helicopters his country is sending to Afghanistan with Canadian troops - and he did not close the door to committing more Polish troops to Kandahar next year.

As Defense Minister Peter MacKay prepares to press allies at a meeting of NATO counterparts in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make a pitch for domestic support today in a meeting with Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.

And Sikorski, in a sense, offered support on that score, too. In a speech in Ottawa yesterday, he warned that if NATO fails to provide sufficient troops for Afghanistan, it would be a blow to the multilateral foreign policy Canada holds dear - showing that only unilateral actions, by countries like the US, count.
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He said Poland's promise to share two helicopters with Canadians in Kandahar, where Polish special forces are also operating, is a start on Canada's demands for help, and his country will push allies for more in a round of international lobbying before a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest in April.

“We will certainly together with Canada be arguing very forcefully in the run-up to the Bucharest summit, that more needs to be done, that burdens have to be shared more fairly, and that there's no room for free-riding in this most important operation that NATO has undertaken,” he said.

The reference to free-riding countries that have placed so-called “caveats” on their troops, effectively prohibiting their use in heavy combat in dangerous southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan, underscores a rift among NATO allies.

Those who have committed troops to Afghanistan's south and east, like Canada, the US, Britain, the Netherlands and Poland, are intensifying pressure on those who have stayed away, or placed restrictions on their troops.

The pledge to share two helicopters, believed to be Soviet-style MI-8s, will likely help Canadian troops cope with a dire short-term shortage in the field.

So will the arrival of a new, seven-month rotation of 2,200 US Marines, with helicopters, to Afghanistan's south.

MacKay said the Polish helicopters will help transport Canadian troops and aid, calling it “good news.”

But neither yet satisfies the call for eight or more medium-lift helicopters that Harper has set as one condition for the extension of the Canadian mission past next February.

The other, tougher condition that NATO must provide 1,000 additional troops for Kandahar, has yet to spark commitments, and Sikorski made no offers yesterday, even if he did not close the door.

He said his country's military is “stretched” this year, but noted Poland will withdraw 900 troops from Iraq in October and refocus on Afghanistan.

“We don't have any more troops available this year, but we certainly will do whatever it takes for NATO to succeed in Afghanistan,” he said.

In a television interview yesterday, MacKay also held out hope that France will provide troops. “This is a country that we believe has the capacity,” he said.

However, even if NATO countries offer troops and equipment, it is far from clear whether the minority conservative government will win support in the House of Commons for extending the military mission beyond 2009.

MacKay said he hopes Canada will take a “mandate” to a summit of NATO heads of government in April - hinting the parliamentary vote will before then.

Harper is to meet Dion today to make a pitch for support, although the Liberal Leader has publicly remained committed to his demand for Canada to leave its “combat” mission next February.

“I want to hear more. The Prime Minister a week ago, at the press conference with you, said that he will come with more specifics about his position. I hope he will start to do that,” Dion told reporters yesterday.

Some Liberal MPs would open the door to a compromise if Harper mapped out an exit strategy for Canadian troops after the extension, perhaps in 2011, but others remain opposed to an extension. (theglobeandmail)