The death of 10 French paratroopers in a Taliban ambush Monday was the largest combat loss for France since the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983. Yet neither France's political class nor its public opinion appears ready to second-guess the nation's commitment to the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan. However unpopular the war in Iraq has been in France, public support has remained solid for beating back Islamist extremists and creating stability in a democratic Afghanistan. Still, the deadly Taliban offensives this week have rekindled demands that France and its partners come up with a clear and viable plan for victory in an increasingly perilous Afghan operation.
That's no mean feat. "How do you win a war that is militarily unwinnable?" asked Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-leaning daily Libération in an editorial Wednesday. "Obviously pulling out would be the worst of all outcomes. But the solution can only be political, even if that requires military supremacy. The courage of soldiers demands the intelligence of politicians."
Thus far, French leaders haven't proven any more successful in hammering out a strategy and timetable for victory than their peers from the 39 other nations participation in the Afghan mission. But current French troop reinforcements mean Paris has an increasing interest (and perhaps rising influence) in making sure the operation doesn't remain what now appears an open-ended face off with resurgent Taliban forces.
Indeed, Monday's ambush, which killed 10 French soldiers and injured another 21, occurred 30 miles east of Kabul in a region that had only recently shifted from U.S. military control to France. It also coincided with the deployment of 700 new French troops to Afghanistan lifting France's total to around 2,600 in response to American pleas to for reinforcements that left most European allies largely unmoved. The Taliban waylaying of the French paratroopers was single deadliest attack in Afghanistan since June, 2005, when 16 American soldiers were killed when their helicopter was shot down. At total of 183 alliance soldiers, 99 of them American, have been killed in Afghanistan this year, putting 2008 on pace to eclipse last year's record toll of 232 fatalities.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy interrupted his summer vacation to travel to Kabul, pay tribute to the fallen French soldiers and underline that his support of the Afghan mission "remains intact." "Even though the toll is so high, you should be proud of what you are doing," Sarkozy told French forces. "The work that you're doing here is indispensable."
Sarkozy's consistent backing of U.S.-led initiatives has repeatedly generated criticism that he has aligned French policies too closely to those of the unpopular and distrusted Bush administration. Those complaints resounded earlier this year when Sarkozy pledged to meet the American requests of new troops for Afghanistan. But Sarkozy was able to renew his commitment to the Afghan operation Wednesday with the knowledge that public opinion believes in the mission's necessity.
"There's been wide consensus for a long time in France that when the right times come, the army must be used even if the price to pay for that will be the loss of soldiers," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Once the shock of these deaths eases, people won't ask whether we can stand the losses we obviously can. Nor will it be whether this is a legitimate and important war for global stability it is. Debate will focus on how we get down to business and map out a way to beat an enemy that is very clearly getting stronger."
"As France moves closer to the inner circle of NATO, and especially after the new American administration is in place next year, impatience and urgency will quickly grow to develop a clear political and strategic plan for Afghanistan," Heisbourg says. "Sarkozy knows the risk in France isn't of people deciding this was a bad war after all. Instead it's people getting fed up with not winning the damned thing, and giving up on it."