Sarkozy Wins Approval for French Role In Afghanistan

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PARIS, Sept. 22 -- The French government won parliamentary backing Monday for its domestically unpopular military involvement in Afghanistan. Accused of following an unwise policy dictated by Washington, however, it fell far short of the national consensus sought by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The vote in the National Assembly, 343 to 210, authorized Sarkozy to keep France's 3,000-member military contingent alongside U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan as the Bush administration reviews its strategy and considers sending reinforcements to counter a surge in Taliban attacks. But a sharp debate that preceded the balloting also put on vivid display the public unease over what opposition legislators called a poorly thought-out commitment without an exit strategy, in a faraway and little-understood land.

"You give the French people the perspective of a limitless continuation of a failed strategy," said the opposition Socialist Party's parliamentary leader, Jean-Marc Ayrault. He added: "We no longer accept the drift we see at work in Afghanistan. We are slipping into a war of occupation that has no limits, neither in duration nor in objectives."

The Socialists, France's largest opposition group, said they were voting against the government not because they advocated a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Rather, they said, they wanted to condition France's presence there on a greater French role in decision making, a timetable for withdrawal and increased emphasis on civilian development projects rather than what they called a U.S. policy weighted too heavily toward military goals.

The vote, in a special session of the National Assembly, was the first application of a constitutional amendment adopted July 21 requiring the government to gain parliamentary approval for any French military deployment overseas that lasts more than four months. The upper chamber, the Senate, followed suit with a favorable vote, 209 to 119, several hours later.

The amendment, pushed by Sarkozy, marked a departure from French political tradition, which has given the president broad power over foreign relations since the time of Charles de Gaulle nearly half a century ago.

Doubts about France's role in Afghanistan have risen markedly among the public here since 10 French troops were killed and 21 were wounded in an ambush near Kabul on Aug. 18. Their deaths were a sudden and searing reminder of the potential costs of Sarkozy's decision in April to increase the number of French troops on the ground and expand their mission to include front-line assignments.

That decision was hailed in Washington as a sign of Sarkozy's willingness to cooperate more energetically than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, in the struggle against terrorism. But it found little enthusiasm in France, even before the 10 troops were killed. A survey taken last week by the BVA polling firm showed that 62 percent of those queried opposed France's participation in the International Security and Assistance Force, which is led by NATO.

The Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail reported over the weekend that according to a classified NATO report, the ambushed French troops ran out of ammunition and were unable to communicate with their headquarters during a long night of combat. French military officials, after first denying any such report, said Monday that it was a preliminary description of what had happened, prepared by a U.S. Special Forces commander who did not have all the facts.

Prime Minister Fran├žois Fillon, presenting the government's case to Parliament, denied that the troops ran out of ammunition, saying they were resupplied by helicopter. He said communications were out only for a few minutes, after a radio technician was killed.

At the same time, Fillon said the Defense Ministry has drawn lessons from the killings. In response, he announced, the French mission in Afghanistan will get more Caracal and Gazelle helicopters, more drones and radio monitoring equipment, and another mortar squad. The new equipment will require dispatching an additional 100 troops, he added.

Fillon, confident that Sarkozy's parliamentary majority would result in backing for the military mission, nevertheless urged a broad yes vote to demonstrate national unity in support of French troops on the ground. He reminded opponents that French troops were first sent to Afghanistan in 2001 under a government headed by Lionel Jospin, a Socialist.

"For Afghanistan, I believe in the need for a national consensus, and this consensus -- I am aware -- cannot be decreed," Fillon said. "It is built by listening to the convictions and questions of each one of us."

France must remain in Afghanistan, he added, because of its commitments at the United Nations, because of its friendship with the United States and other allies, and because it believes that smothering terrorist refuges and building a democratic Afghanistan is worth the sacrifice.

"We must be coherent," he said. "If we believe in universal values, then we must take the risk of struggling for them."

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