Since Hollande’s initial campaign promise, military specialists have pointed out that it would be next to impossible to transport all combat troops and their equipment back to France by the end of the year. Leaving behind the equipment to be guarded by U.S. or other NATO forces also would be an undesirable solution, they said.
The deployment, according to the Defense Ministry, includes up to 900 vehicles, more than half of them tanks and armored personnel carriers. Fourteen helicopters, based at the Kabul airport, have been deployed to transport and protect French soldiers. Several Mirage 2000 warplanes also have been dispatched to provide air reconnaissance, along with a K-C135 refueling plane that is based in the Persian Gulf.
The French military could bring back the troops but would have trouble hauling back all their equipment, because it is short on heavy-lift aircraft. Burkhard said the French military usually has to rent C-5A Galaxy, C-141 Starlifter or C-17A Globemaster transport planes from the United States for a trip to or from a Persian Gulf airport, from where the equipment is moved by sea.
Leaving the equipment in Afghanistan, particularly armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery, is an unpalatable solution because much of it is top-of-the-line, new or recently retrofitted with modern electronics and is needed to keep the French military well equipped, Heisbourg said.
“If it’s just a question of getting the boys out, that’s no problem,” he said. “Hollande can say with a straight face that he carried out his pledge. But we also want to bring back their stuff, and it’s going to take a long time.”
With Pakistan closing off its territory to NATO’s military convoys, bringing back the equipment would mean a long land journey through Central Asia or the costly leasing of the giant transport planes from other countries. In addition, other countries are likely to be withdrawing at the same time, clogging air and rail transport and extending the time necessary to keep French troops on scene to guard equipment.