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A turning point in France's Afghan policy?

(credit: DICOD, French Ministry of Defence)

(BRUSSELS2) Four soldiers killed, 16 wounded (including 8 seriously), the results of the action of a soldier wearing the uniform of the Afghan army inside the base of Gwan (or Gwam according to the designations) in the Bagram Valley caused a stir in Paris to the highest peak in the state.

Presenting his wishes to the diplomatic corps, the President of the Republic first wanted to pay tribute to the victims and recalled the objective of the French presence. " The French army is at the service of the Afghans, against terrorism, against the Taliban " She helps " the Afghan government in its just fight against the forces of obscurentism, barbarism and a return to a medieval climate where women and little girls were martyred ". But he immediately seized the opportunity to influence the French position, explaining that he had " required "the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff to go there, " at once to ascertain the circumstances of this death.

Suspension of French army operations

In the meantime, announced Nicolas Sarkozy: “ All training and combat aid operations of the French army are suspended. The Minister of Defense will report to us (...) on what he has seen in Afghanistan. And if the security conditions for our soldiers, such as the conditions for recruiting Afghan soldiers into the Afghan army, are not clearly specified, and it's hard, France will immediately draw all the consequences. did he say. And repeat “We are the friends of the Afghan people, the allies of the Afghan people. But I cannot accept Afghan soldiers shooting at our soldiers. If the security conditions are not clearly established, the question of the early return of the French army to France will clearly arise. ».

Listen (excerpt from France-info):

Very mixed reaction to NATO

In Brussels, the Secretary General of NATO, AF Rasmussen remained, this morning, with a cautious reaction. He wanted to express his “condolences for the four French soldiers (...) killed today and (his) sympathy to those who were injured. (...) It is a very sad day for our troops in Afghanistan and for the French people. "These tragic incidents are terrible (...), but they are isolated. “, however, he wanted to (re) affirm. " The reality is that every day, 130 ISAF soldiers from 000 nations are fighting and training with more than 50 Afghan troops. (...) We have the same objective. An Afghanistan that is responsible for its own security. This is what the Afghans want. And we are committed to helping Afghans achieve this goal. »

Recognition of a fact

This is not the first time that soldiers wearing Afghan army uniforms have fired on NATO troops. Until now, we only spoke of isolated acts, of personal drift (this is still the official language, see Rasmussen's reaction). It was even said that the Taliban were reduced to extreme acts (cf. the words of G. Longuet a few weeks ago). Nobody dared to affirm officially that the Afghan army could resemble a leaky basket, easily infiltrated by the Taliban, and even less to recognize that it was not as reliable as the Allies wanted to claim. Because what the French president is questioning is not only the methods of recruitment by the Afghan government. Behind this attack, there is the accelerated pace given to the training of the Afghan army, and its large size, which forced to make a forced recruitment. It is the Americans who are normally responsible alongside the Afghans for examining and verifying (screening) the past of the recruits. A review apparently too light.

Withdrawal, a strategic or... campaign issue

We can also note that President Sarkozy made no mention of the usual prudence and turn to the notions of withdrawal from Afghanistan, in "close ties and consultation with our allies" of NATO. What thus seems to be evoked is more a unilateral withdrawal from certain operations carried out within NATO. An admission certainly of a certain failure of the strategy followed in Afghanistan. But also a turning point in French policy which has always been, despite the losses, to display an unfailing presence in the international coalition present in Afghanistan.

We certainly cannot analyze these elements without perceiving the weight of the electoral pressure; several candidates (starting with the socialist candidate François Hollande) have asked for a quicker withdrawal and the polls are not favorable for an operation which is more and more expensive, for the State budget as well as in human terms (82 dead French today). For candidate Sarkozy, it is therefore a question of pulling the rug out from under his opponents. In his speech, he was also very careful to specify that France's commitment had been decided " about ten years ago » and that he had only done « continue this commitment ».

However, this turnaround is not automatically excellent. If on the merits, it can be justified (the strategy in Afghanistan is confused), it designates French soldiers even more as targets, as a weak link in the coalition. It should also spark an important debate within the coalition.

Defense ministers meet in early February at NATO headquarters. The discussion could be lively. N. Sarkozy's intervention has one merit: that of posing the reality of the French commitment in Afghanistan, a debate hitherto avoided.

Read also:

To read: The text of the diplomatic vows in the B2 Docs

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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