Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy rallies troops after French deaths in Afghanistan

An emotional President Sarkozy insisted yesterday that there would be no French wobble over Afghanistan, urging troops in Kabul to fight with fresh resolve after the loss of ten comrades.

Mr Sarkozy, pale and shaken after inspecting the coffins of the young French servicemen, voiced his defiance after the wisdom of his decision to send more troops into what is widely seen as an unwinnable war was called into question.

François Hollande, the Socialist Party leader, said that France “must be told what exactly our soldiers are doing in Afghanistan and how long they will be doing it for”.

Survivors of the six-hour battle, which took place on Monday on a steep hillside 48km (30 miles) east of Kabul, also complained of command errors, including a lack of air support.

They said that commanders had failed to send reinforcements for four hours when the reconnaissance patrol was pinned down. “We didn’t have any more ammunition to defend ourselves except our Famas [assault rifles],” one wounded soldier said.

When air support arrived eventually it missed the Taleban target and hit French and other allied forces, Le Monde newspaper said. “There were snipers among the Taleban, who were more numerous than us and were lying in wait. We could hear them reloading,” another survivor said. As Mr Sarkozy talked to the 21 wounded paratroopers and survivors of the ambush by about a hundred Taleban fighters, soldiers sang They’ve Killed Our Adored Little Brother — a tune of the Chad March regiment, one of the units involved.

“I have seen among you some people crying. I understand,” he said. “I share your pain and these are not just words. The best way of remaining faithful to your comrades is to continue the work. I don’t have any doubt that we have to be here . . . the world’s freedom is at stake here. This is where the fight against terrorism is being waged.

“We are with the Afghans so as not to leave them alone in the face of barbarity.”

Mr Sarkozy flew to Kabul within hours of the worst single-battle losses of French troops since the end of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. The President’s tough language was a response to critics who opposed his decision in April to send 700 combat troops to expand France’s share of the Nato-led Afghan operation. That was a shift from an election pledge last year to bring the French contingent home as soon as possible.

Although the conflict is seen widely as a just war against terrorism, Mr Sarkozy’s expansion of the French effort was opposed by the Socialists and about 60 per cent of the public.

The father of Julien Le Pahun, 19, one of the ten casualties, called on the Government to “stop sending children to be killed in an organsied firing range”. The opposition Socialists did not call for a pullout but demanded an urgent meeting of parliamentary committees to review Afghan strategy.

“The war seems to be changing in nature,” a party spokesman said. “The question is not about whether to fight terrorism and fundamentalism, but whether the strategy is right.” Most media commentators said that the deaths did not cast doubt on the purpose of a mission that Libération, the anti-Sarkozy left-wing newspaper, called a tragic necessity. But they questioned the approach. Le Figaro, which backs the President strongly, wondered: “The objectives may be just, but is the strategy the right one?”

Doubts also came from Mr Sarkozy’s own centre-right camp. Pierre Lellouche, an MP who is chairing a parliamentary report on Afghanistan, said that Nato’s strategy “was failing, both on the political and the military level”.

Nicolas Sarkozy rallies troops after French deaths in Afghanistan
Times Online