Last weekend the London Times reported that France’s President Sarkozy was going to announce the deployment of 1000 French troops to Afghanistan. Today Sarkozy confirmed the offer in a speech to the British Parliament.
It’s a welcome gift to the Anglophone powers leading the international mission in Afghanistan, and further evidence that Sarkozy is genuinely willing to break with the Chirac/Mitterand tradition of French self-assertion through anti-’Anglo-Saxon’ sabotage.
However if it’s to be more than a symbolic gesture, indeed if there is any genuine intention to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan, then the formal and informal ‘caveats’ under which French forces operate will have to be lifted.
There are already 1,500 French troops in Afghanistan under NATO command. But like German, Italian and Spanish forces in Afghanistan they are forbidden to take part in anything resembling a combat operation. In general they have been restricted to safe areas and to missions where there is little likelihood of danger – or doing much good.
In Summer 2006, when Canadian and British troops fighting the Taliban were hard pressed in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, local French commanders agreed to move out of Kabul and reinforce them. However, at the last minute President Chirac intervened and forbade the move – informally tightening the formal caveat, and infuriating French officers on the ground. Luckily for NATO and ISAF, the Romanians stepped in, providing security at rear bases so that Canadian and British combat troops could move to the front. (It was not the first time Eastern Europeans have saved NATO from embarrassment or worse in Afghanistan: In 2005, when the alliance couldn’t persuade France or any of the other major continental powers to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Chaghcharan, the capital of Ghor province, little Lithuania volunteered for the job.)
It is true that some small French special forces units have actually fought in Afghanistan, mostly in the area near Spin Boldak on the Pakistani frontier. But they were removed in December 2006 by Chirac in a final spiteful gesture before he left office.
Sarkozy’s pledge offers an opportunity for France to redeem herself in Afghanistan after the disgrace of 2006 — an opportunity that the French military brass is apparently keen to grasp. If he can fully follow through on his promise, despite the opposition of those in the French establishment who have spent years trying to undermine NATO, it would offer new hope to the Atlantic alliance and the Afghan mission.