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French face tough Afghan reality


For now, the French government is resisting US requests to send more troops

The French government faces a confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday following President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to rejoin Nato's integrated military command.

France is already among the top five contributors to Nato operations and has almost 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. The largest contingent is in the eastern province of Kapisa, where our Paris correspondent, Emma Jane Kirby, has spent two weeks embedded with the troops for Newsnight.

In a low lying village in Nijrab district, crowds of bewildered Afghans struggle to take the blankets, kettles and toys the French soldiers hand out from their armoured vehicles.

It is only just above freezing and the air, trapped by the surrounding mountains, is crisp and thin.


An elderly woman, whose vision is obscured by cataracts, is crying because she cannot find the start of the queue.

Instantly, a young French captain, laden down with body armour and rifle, takes her arm and leads her to the front.

"Make way for grandma!" he tells his colleagues. "This old lady's tired - let grandma go first please."

'Very tough contacts'

Until recently, this was the kind of soft image of soldiers that the French government preferred to promote at home to appease a public hostile to this war.

Very few French understand why their country is involved in a conflict more than 5,000km (3,100 miles) away.

Col Nicolas Le Nen
I don't get the impression we're peacekeeping here
Col Nicolas Le Nen
27th Regiment de Chasseurs

During his presidential election campaign in 2007, Mr Sarkozy hinted he might even have withdrawn French forces.

But a year later, he sent an extra army battalion to Afghanistan's rugged and troubled east as part of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).

With the porous border of Pakistan just over the Hindu Kush, the elite brigade of "Chasseurs Alpins" or mountain infantry, is tasked with trying to stop insurgents coming into the valleys and blocking the supply routes to Kabul.

The insurgent attacks are frequent and brutal - sometimes the battles last for four hours.

A suggestion by the UK and US militaries that the French do not shoulder their fair share of the war's risk irritates Colonel Nicolas Le Nen, commander of the 27th Regiment de Chasseurs.

"I don't get the impression we're peacekeeping here," he tells me with a polite smile. "The contacts are very tough... we are definitely not on a peacekeeping mission.

"We are also in the east to show to our allies that France is also in the front line against the insurgents," he adds.

Difficult dilemma

France only really woke up to the fact that it was engaged in a real war in Afghanistan when 10 of its soldiers were killed and 21 others injured in an ambush last August.

Mr Sarkozy says rejoining Nato's military command ensures France's independence

At that point, more than half of France's population said the troops should be brought home, according to nationwide opinion polls.

But President Sarkozy insists France will remain in Afghanistan until the end.

He also plans to bring his country back into Nato's integrated military command, 44 years after Charles de Gaulle removed it, claiming US dominance would compromise national independence.

Mr Sarkozy argues that rejoining Nato's core will give France a bigger voice not only in the military alliance, but also in the realm of European defence.

"When we are among our family, we have more leeway to discuss with the others because they do not question where France stands," he once said.

French soldier on patrol in Afghanistan
France is already among the top five contributors to Nato operations

But many French do not interpret the decision in quite the same way - they fear it will mean their country will be stuck in the conflict and will find itself at America's beck and call.

France has had soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001 and there are now around 3,000 of them.

But US President Barack Obama claims that is not enough, and is putting pressure on the government to send more.

That throws up a difficult dilemma for Mr Sarkozy - if he does send extra troops it will certainly please Nato, but it will cause a backlash at home.

Changing priorities

For now, Paris is resisting US requests to send more troops but momentum on the ground is building too.

"I think France has to send more soldiers," 19-year-old Private Beranger tells me as he stands guard high up in the mountains, training his binoculars on the rocky valleys below.

Pte Beranger
America sends a lot of soldiers - and France has to do the same
Pte Beranger

"Afghanistan is a big country and there are Taleban all around. America sends a lot of soldiers - and France has to do the same."

France's armed forces are still among the strongest in Western Europe, but over the past year the army has been downsized considerably and hundreds of soldiers have been withdrawn from traditional French posts in Africa.

The government believes military priorities have changed and the greatest threat facing France today is a terrorist attack. Mr Sarkozy says that fighting terrorism on the other side of the world helps keep it from your own doorstep.

In the valley, the soldiers are packing up the tables at the collection point.

A couple of them ask the interpreters to explain to the scores of people who are still patiently sitting in rows like school children for their turn, that there is nothing left.

There is no outcry, no shoving, not a word of abuse - the crowd just stands up and resignedly, turns quietly for home.

Up in the mountains again, I ask Pte Beranger if he thinks France will win this so-called "war on terror".

"In Afghanistan?" he asks. "Really I don't know… It's a dangerous area, a difficult country."

"It will be very long, it will be very long to win the war."

You can see Emma Jane Kirby's report, which was filmed by Luke Winsbury, on Newsnight on BBC2 at 2230 GMT, 16 March.

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