Poland is facing a rare war-crimes prosecution at a crucial juncture for both the newly elected government's commitment to overseas military engagements and the effort to overhaul the nation's armed forces.
Seven Polish soldiers sit in a military jail in Poznan, accused of killing six Afghan civilians, including women and children, in the village of Nangarkhel in August. Whether the mortar rounds that killed the Afghans were a result of bad aim, bad orders or bad intentions remains to be determined.
The charges against the soldiers have led the country into uncharted legal, moral and political territory. The case has become a test of the public's stomach for sending soldiers into faraway battle in support of allies.
The issue is especially troubling to a country with a strong attachment to its military, a result of centuries of division and domination by foreign powers. Poland also tends to view itself as an underdog fighting on the side of right, typified by the mythic charge of Polish cavalry against Nazi tanks in World War II.
"We were convinced that our contribution was not only stable and militarily significant, but also that we stand for international law and humanitarian needs," said Bogdan Klich, the defense minister. "From that point of view, what happened in Afghanistan is a shock for Polish public opinion."
The timing is particularly difficult, he said, because "we are in the critical phase of reshaping our involvement in the military missions," including plans to withdraw from Iraq.
The headline on the cover of the Polish edition of Newsweek after the soldiers were arrested on Nov. 13 said bluntly: "Blood on the Uniform."
On the cover of Polityka, a newsmagazine, the larger question rang out: "Afghanistan: What Are We Doing There?"
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