The French government of President Nicholas Sarkozy was unprepared for the ferocity of the Taliban ambush on Monday that cost the lives of ten French soldiers and wounded twenty-others, and is scrambling to explain its decision in April to “surge” additional troops to Afghanistan, as part of a growing commitment to NATO decided by the French president.
The French soldiers, many of whom arrived in Afghanistan as part of a 700-man strong troop surge in July, were ambushed as they attempted to open a mountain road 30 miles north of Kabul in an area of Kapista province formerly held by U.S. units.
“The French army hasn’t been confronted with this type of situation since the war in Algeria,” said Axel Poniatowski, the chairman of the French Assembly’s foreign affairs committee.
Although he visited Afghanistan just six weeks ago on a fact-finding mission and considers himself a key ally of Sarkozy, Poniatowski told Le Monde on Wednesday that Sarkozy’s government and his ruling majority in parliament had under-estimated the risks of the expanded French deployment.
“We probably misunderstood it ourselves,” he acknowledged. “Up until then — and still today — the mission of the French basically had been in the area of providing security and training to the Afghan army, especially the officers.”
But now the French are finding themselves in hot combat, and they are not so sure they like it.
Pierre Moscovici, the shadow defense secretary of the opposition Socialists, accused President Sarkozy of putting French lives at stake just to please President Bush, whom he dismissed as “an ideologue.”
The Socialists opposed the surge when it was proposed in April by calling for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, which failed.
“We have reached a lasting military impasse,” Moscovici said. “There is no purely military solution” for the growing chaos in Afghanistan.
Moscovici has publicly supported the candidacy of Barack Obama in the United States, but told a radio interviewer on Wednesday that if Obama were elected and fulfilled his campaign promise to send an additional 10,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he would oppose him, especially if Obama also called on France to supply more troops.
“I support Obama because I want an end to Bush,” Moscovici said. “But American unilateralism won’t end with Obama. It will simply decrease.”
Sensing the political heat over Monday’s ambush — the heaviest loss of life for the French military since the Oct. 23, 1983 attacks that took the lives of 241 U.S. Marines and 63 French paratroopers in Beirut — President Sarkozy made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to visit with French troops on Wednesday.
Citing military sources in Kabul, including French soldiers wounded in Monday’s ambush, Le Monde reported on Wednesday that the French paratroopers were pinned down for several hours before reinforcements arrived.
“We had no more ammunition to anything besides our rifles,” one soldier told a Le Monde reporter.
NATO airstrikes called in to relieve the French troops appeared to have gone astray, according to the soldier. He said that some of the French casualties were caused by friendly fire from Afghan troops accompanying the French patrol.
The coordinated Taliban attack took French defense minister Herve Morin by surprise as well. He ordered the French army to “learn the lessons in terms of intelligence” from the attack.
“The Taliban are capable of carrying out operations that are far more organized,” he said. “They took us by surprise.”
Although the opposition Socialists are not yet calling for the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan, their heated criticism for the government’s Afghan troop surge — which came as wounded soldiers were landing at a French military base near Paris — drew a public rebuke from French prime minister Francois Fillon.
“I am asking [opposition leader] Francois Holland to respect a period of mourning, solidarity, and suffering,” Fillon said on Wednesday.
Holland told French state radio earlier in the day that his opposition Socialists were demanding that parliament return from its August recess “in the coming days” for a special session to debate the government’s Afghan policy.
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