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Poland guts military command on NATO front line

By MAREK STRZELECKI | Bloomberg | Published: February 23, 2017

Poland's conservative government has replaced almost all of its military leadership after hundreds of officers left, an exit that coincides with a call from Warsaw to its NATO allies for help boosting its defense.

With the government moving to rid institutions of officials appointed by the former ruling Civic Platform party, which it defeated in 2015 elections, 90 percent of the General Staff leadership and more than 80 percent of the army's top brass have gone, according to the Defense Ministry. They include Chief of Staff Gen. Miroslaw Gocul, who stepped down last month and Army Commander Gen. Miroslaw Rozanski.

The ruling Law & Justice Party has pledged to purge government of what its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called the "worst type of Poles" -- people with ties to Civic Platform or the communists who ruled the country last century. It is also thinning out experienced soldiers who have served in wars alongside their allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Poland joined with other former eastern bloc states in 1999.

"Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz has conducted a widespread change at top positions in operating units, each time replacing officers selected by the Civic Platform with experienced officers trained in Iraq and Afghanistan and trained by NATO," the ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

Among the departures are 26 generals and more than 250 colonels, about a quarter and a sixth of the army's total, TVN24 television reported. While media say the numbers are higher than compared with previous years, the ministry says the total size of the army increased to 106,000 in 2017 from 96,000 in 2015.

"Probably part of the departures are natural, but there's also part that's forced, for example by transfer orders sending officers into reserves," retired brigadier general Stanislaw Koziej, who was head of the National Security Bureau under the Civic Platform government from 2010 to 2015, said by phone. "The worrying element is that some departures are at the highest level where the military command links with political leadership. This is a bad signal."

The sweeping leadership changes also follow criticism against measures enacted by Law & Justice from Poland's allies in the U.S. and European Union who say the party is undermining the rule of law. The country set itself on a collision course with the EU's executive commission this week when it brushed off concerns laid out in the 28-member bloc's first ever probe into whether a member is failing to uphold its democratic values.

The government in Warsaw is also pushing to bring more U.S. troops to Poland as it warns against what it says is an increasing security threat from an expansionist Russia and the war in Ukraine.

"A soldier has no other means of protest besides taking off the uniform," Koziej said.

Polish soldiers stand at attention during a welcoming ceremony for the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, in Zagan, Poland, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. The unit is on a nine-month deployment to eastern Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
MICHAEL ABRAMS/STARS AND STRIPES

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