How France's threat to pull out of Afghanistan could impact NATO

In a tough day for NATO troops in Afghanistan, a man in an Afghan military uniform kills four French troops and a helicopter accident costs other NATO troops' lives. 

Charles Platiau/AP
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony to present New Year wishes to the foreign diplomatic corps at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday. France is suspending its training operations in Afghanistan and threatening to withdraw its entire force from the country early, after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French troops Friday and wounded several others.

At least four French troops are dead and more injured after someone wearing an Afghan military uniform turned his weapon against NATO forces. It’s the latest in an increasing number of such incidents and could further strain relations between NATO and Afghan officials.

Following Friday’s shooting, one of the most deadly for French forces over the past decade in Afghanistan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy suspended his country’s combat operations and threatened to pull out early.

“The French army stands side by side with its allies but we can't accept that a single one of our soldiers be killed by our allies,” said Mr. Sarkozy according to Radio France Internationale.  “If the conditions for security are not clearly established, the question of an early withdrawal of the French army will arise.”

France has committed to keeping troops here – which currently number less than 4,000 – until 2014. Their early withdrawal would place considerable strain on NATO troops already spread thin across Afghanistan and potentially encourage other partner nations to end their mission ahead of schedule.

Today’s incident puts France’s total loss of service members in Afghanistan at 82. French troops are predominantly stationed in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan (see map), and training Afghan forces has been a primary focus of their mission here.

Following the incident, Sarkozy dispatched Defense Minister Gerard Longuet and the head of the French Army to Afghanistan to assess the security conditions for French troops, reports the Wall Street Journal.

A classified report by coalition officials obtained by The New York Times found that NATO’s attempts to downplay the threat of Afghan soldiers and police killing their Western counterparts “seem disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest.”

The report’s authors found that between May 2007 and May 2011, members of the Afghan police and Army caused 6 percent of coalition fatalities, killing a total of 58 coalition troops.

“Lethal altercations are clearly not rare or isolated; they reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat [a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history],” wrote the report’s authors. 

Among the French, the shooting may spark heated debate: Friday’s incident follows closely on the heels of a separate incident on Dec. 29, when two members of the French Foreign Legion were gunned down by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform.

Though France’s role in Afghanistan has long been a point of contention back home, it hasn’t been seriously debated by the parliament, reports The Washington Post.

The shooting coincided with the downing of a NATO helicopter in southern Afghanistan that took the lives of at least six service members. While NATO officials have yet to release any details about the crash, CBS News reports that it occurred in the restive Helmand Province and all those killed were US marines. Coalition officials said there was no enemy activity in the area at the time of the crash.

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