PARIS - France can accept that her soldiers might die in combat in Afghanistan. Even while long refusing to admit that it is actually at war there, France has decided that part of the fight against terrorism is being played out on Afghan territory. France also decided, by now more than 10 years ago, that it had to stand by its NATO allies in hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan where the terror group had been given refuge by the Taliban during its time in power.
But two years before the planned U.S. withdrawal from the country, reality has become more complicated, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy was absolutely right to evoke, on Friday, the possibility of an early departure of French troops from Afghanistan.
He did so after the shock of the attack on French soldiers by an Afghan soldier earlier in the day. It happened in the east of the country, during training exercises inside the base: four French soldiers were killed and 15 others were injured during the attack.
It is the second such incident in less than a month. On December 29, two members of the French Legion of Honor were killed by a soldier from the Afghan National Army (ANA). Including the four who died on Friday, a total of 82 French soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.
Today, France has 3,600 military personnel in Afghanistan. In preparation for their planned departure at the end of 2013, the French military, like the other military contingents in Afghanistan, has participated in training the ANA. The goal, agreed to by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, is to allow the ANA to control the largest percentage of Afghan territory possible, and to give it a position of strength before negotiating with the Taliban.
Looking to Qatar
If you believe a report revealed this week by The New York Times, the death of the French soldiers occurred within a peculiar larger context, one that NATO spokespeople have never wanted to admit.
For some time now, ANA soldiers have been murdering NATO soldiers at ever-increasing rates, according to a secret study by the joint allied forces. These attacks have come primarily from Afghan recruits and not from Taliban spies who have infiltrated the ANA. The document describes a climate of increasing hostility between the Afghans and the foreign forces.
The negotiations between the United States and the Taliban is slated to start in Qatar. The goal is well-known: find a way to integrate the Taliban into a national unity government that can help end the war. That goal matches Barack Obamas intention to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by 2014.
If whatever group within the Afghan power structure is not happy with that arrangement, or if these plans are causing an explosion of xenophobia among the ANA recruits, France has no reason to pay the price for it. That is not to say that we will abandon Afghanistan. It is just to say that we must urgently find a way to help the country that is focused more on economic or humanitarian support than on a military presence.
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photo - ISAF