Sparks Over Sarkozy's Afghan Plan

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So it's finally out in the open: French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to send significant troop reinforcements to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But while his long-anticipated decision to bolster the alliance's struggling counterinsurgency mission will please the U.S., Britain and Canada, which had been urging their NATO partners to do more, Sarkozy's announcement has prompted an unexpected uproar in France. Indeed, some commentators are warning that by expanding France's exposure in a war considered just by a majority of French people, Sarkozy may be undermining public support of the mission.

"The French will back troop deployment to combat zones and will tolerate significant death counts as an occupational military hazard," notes political commentator Gilles Delafon. "What they won't tolerate are soldiers being sent to their deaths because officials didn't have a real strategy or plan for how to win the conflict. And that looks to be the case with this new deployment to Afghanistan."

France's formal commitment of an additional 1,000 ground troops to Afghanistan will come during next week's NATO summit in Romania. Those new troops are to join France's current contingent of 1,600. But while those currently in Afghanistan patrol the relatively calm area in and around Kabul, most or all of the new units are expected to be sent to the south of Afghanistan, where the reformed Taliban and their allies have strengthened. Indeed, deaths among Canadian combat personnel in the area have been so high that Ottawa had threatened to pull its military from Afghanistan if NATO allies did not contribute reinforcements. That echoed even sterner U.S. demands for more effort from underperforming NATO members.

So up stepped Sarkozy, who in London this week explained his decision by warning, "We can not accept a return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda to Kabul. Defeat is not an option to us, even if victory is difficult." Few in French politics or public opinion disagree with that view. "Afghanistan is still linked in the French mind to the response to 9/11 ... (and) is still widely seen here as the right war" says François Heisbourg, a military expert and special adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris.

That may change, however. Heisbourg notes that since the late 1970s, positive French public opinion of the nation's military has reinforced wide — and extremely rare — political consensus on the funding and use of French forces. It is that sweeping support that has left France's troops better-funded and more frequently dispatched to international crises or conflicts than other European forces, which have generally shrunk for lack of financial and political backing. But sending new French troops into an increasingly chaotic Afghanistan without a clear victory plan could eventually create the kinds of doubts in public opinion, observers warn — and make France's military a point of political jousting once again.

Delafon says it already has. "The Socialist opposition is already reminding people of Sarkozy's campaign comment that he didn't favor additional French forces because he couldn't see how it would be 'decisive'," Delafon notes, adding that few analysts see how a modest reinforcement could possibly prove "decisive" now. "This is a political move following through on Sarkozy's pledge to improve Franco-American cooperation. Making a political decision on a military matter, and without a clear military strategy for victory behind it, carries very significant political risks: The French public may sour on an Afghanistan going from bad to worse, (and), accusations already flying of Sarkozy being a poodle of U.S. foreign policy may start to stick."

Especially since those claims are now being aired by Sarkozy's fellow conservatives — who have forced a parliamentary hearing on Sarkozy's planned troop deployment next week. In addition to concerns that those reinforcements won't tip the balance back to NATO's side — while sending Afghan forces a sign they can count on outside help indefinitely — some legislators bristle at Sarkozy's apparent responsiveness to American decrees. "This decision clearly looks to be an Atlanticist alignment on American positions, even though Washington's foreign policy is a total failure," fumed Jacques Myard, a conservative member of parliament's foreign affairs commission.

It's probably in anticipation of such complaints that Sarkozy conditioned the troop augmentation to NATO acceptance of a French plan he said will "allow the Afghan people and its legitimate government to build a peaceful future". Sarkozy isn't saying publicly what such a plan would involve, or how it might reverse the setbacks suffered by NATO. But its contents may well decide the fate of French involvement in Afghanistan.