The 10 French paratroopers killed and 21 wounded in Afghanistan – nearly an entire platoon and the highest French casualties since 1983 in Lebanon – were from a battalion that took control of Kabul only two weeks ago. The event hit Paris hard enough to cause French President Nicolas Sarkozy, fresh from negotiating the Georgian dispute in Moscow, to leave for Afghanistan Tuesday evening to visit the troops.
Both Mr. Sarkozy and the clearly angry French minister of defense, Hervé Morin issued tough statements in support of the French Afghan mission – a mission Sarkozy has steadily supported as a matter of world security and NATO responsibility, in contrast with the Iraq war.
Sarkozy has slowly and successfully shifted the discussion in France toward support of a more robust Afghanistan mission. Unlike nearly all European leaders, he has even begun to adopt the terminology of a "war on terror," a deeply unpopular phrase on the Continent, and one that has not particularly caught hold at home.
"My determination remains intact. France is resolved to pursue the fight against terrorism, for democracy and liberty." Sarkozy said in a statement. "The cause is just, it is the honor of France and its armies to defend it."
French war correspondent Florence Aubemas, who has reported in the region, wrote in the Nouvel Observateur that the attack was not on French troops in particular but was aimed at NATO forces in general.
France is sending 700 troops in a wave of new deployments to Afghanistan this summer, raising its figure to some 2,600 by the end of August – and the major humanitarian donor conference on Afghanistan in July was held in Paris, with Afghan president Hamid Karzai the guest of honor.
Yet with France's first major casualties, French officials are aware they need to tread a fine line with mercurial French public opinion – pointing out repeatedly yesterday that the 10 killed in a conflict were not part of the most recent deployments of 700. During the French presidential contest of 2007, the idea of French soldiers losing their lives in any large number in a mission allied with the US was considered a political nightmare. The number of French troops Sarkozy committed to France was less than the Bush administration hoped for.
The reaction to the French soldiers' deaths in a Paris mostly on vacation was mixed. An online news article from Le Monde, which – like most of the major papers' websites – featured the story as the lead item, brought comment by one reader that the attack by 100 Taliban could be "foreseen" and asked, "When will we have a debate in Parliament on this?" An editorial in the outspoken and independent Rue 89 suggested that the "meaning" of the Afghan war has been lost to many French, and called for negotiations with the Taliban in a war that seems "endlessly protracted."
In a nationally televised press conference, General Morin warned that while Western operations in Afghanistan had been "going well" until 2006, the Taliban were becoming better armed, larger and more effective.
France has the second-largest military deployment of any nation in the world. The French Army and special forces in particular are generally admired for their professionalism and toughness. For years, the French military was regarded as one of the few armies that would fight and take casualties without creating a major public outcry, even if disliked.
But French missions in Africa and the Middle East were part of France's own national projection of power, honor, and glory – and not part of a more abstract concept like international security, as in Afghanistan.
"They are serious professionals that go into places with their eyes open, and their intelligence turned on," says a Western diplomat in Europe familiar with the French mission. "In Afghanistan, they knew the terrain they were going into was dangerous; they knew what they were getting into. I doubt this event will lessen the French commitment."
Some 173 NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 – with the number spiking in the past two years, as the Taliban regathered their strength.
The French troops were on a reconnaissance operation against a Taliban stronghold 35 miles east of Kabul, near the Pakistani border – considered a fluid zone of ethnic Pashtuns with sympathy for the aims of the Taliban.
The French foreign policy and military establishment has long known, French officials say, that France will need to increasingly support the NATO Afghan mission – as the US commitments abroad deepen. It has been a truism, and one used to block what are seen as excessive new enterprises like the NATO membership bids by Georgia and Ukraine, that a failure in Afghanistan would be a heavy blow for the West. The two polar opposites in French politics, the communist party, and the right-wing party of Le Pen both expressed dismay: The former was opposed to the NATO mission and expressed sympathy for the families of the soldiers. The latter offered that French soldiers should "not be getting killed for Uncle Sam."
French journalists pointed out that much of the media about the attack was controlled by the president's office.