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France to take long look at Afghan mission

/ Source: The Associated Press

The death of 10 French soldiers in an ambush by insurgents in Afghanistan has stoked a cry at home for France to rethink its commitment to the seven-year mission led by the United States.

Most French voters want out, and the opposition is ratcheting up the pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy's government — though analysts say France and other allies will dig in for the fight even as they insist upon a new look at NATO's strategy against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The word "quagmire" has popped up repeatedly when Afghanistan is discussed in Paris political circles — even in Sarkozy's own party — since Monday's well-planned ambush of a French-led patrol in the Uzbin Valley east of Kabul. It was the deadliest attack on international troops in Afghanistan in more than three years, and the latest sign that the insurgency is growing stronger.

"The pressure is going to be: How do we get this war right?" said Francois Heisbourg, who heads the state-funded Foundation for Strategic Research think-tank in Paris.

Debates to take place
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has ordered a parliamentary debate and vote on France's role in Afghanistan, part of a new law requiring a lawmaker vote on foreign military missions lasting more than four months. They are expected to take place between Sept. 22 and Sept. 30.

Analysts say there is little chance that parliament — where Sarkozy's conservatives have a large majority — will vote to end France's participation in the Afghan mission.

But Afghanistan is likely to grow in the French public eye.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the defense and foreign ministers will separately face questions from parliamentary panels about the ambush — such as the intelligence failings that led to such casualties in a well-trained French patrol. Aside from the 10 soldiers killed, another 21 were injured.

France has been at the side of the United States in Afghanistan ever since the allied invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban's regime. In April, Sarkozy agreed to raise the French commitment by 700 troops — to 3,300 in the Afghan theater.

Iraq's impact on Afghan debate
The evolution of the war in Iraq — while in many ways very different from the one in Afghanistan — looms large in French minds when it comes to considering their country's future role.

"In the case of Iraq, the Americans had a big strategic rethink about how they were handling it," said Heisbourg. "That kind of rethink is what's going to have to take place with Afghanistan."

Sarkozy's top adviser, Claude Gueant, said the French public has "poorly understood" the "faraway" war in Afghanistan. He said one of the troubles the allies now face in Afghanistan is the return of jihadi fighters from Iraq.

"Now that the situation is changing in Iraq, they are heading to a new front, which is the one in Afghanistan," Gueant told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview set for publication on Sunday.

Sarkozy insists France's commitment to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan "remains intact" — but he is staking at least part of his political capital in the effort to quash a resurgent Taliban.

"They're testing French public opinion," said Douglas Bland, a former colonel and the chair of defense management studies at Queen's University in Canada.

Political impacts of Afghan mission
The French debate resonates in Canada, which has lost 93 soldiers in Afghanistan since the war began. Canada agreed to keep its 2,500 troops in southern Kandahar province only on the condition — partially met by France's new commitment — that NATO deploy reinforcements. Three Canadians were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Thursday.

The risk for Sarkozy remains that the mission in Afghanistan could erode his popularity over time — much like former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain faced political damage over his commitment to the Iraq war.

"We're not in the Blair kind of situation, but it may come," said political analyst Dominique Moisi.

Sarkozy repeatedly dodged or scoffed at questions this week about a poll in Le Parisien indicating that a majority of French want their country to withdraw from Afghanistan.

He countered that it was time to mourn for those who were killed. Gueant said Sarkozy was "affected" by the deaths — the biggest French troop casualties he has had to cope with since taking office in May last year.

"In military terms, I think we, the French, are pretty tough," said Heisbourg. "Our normal reaction to losing people is not to sit down and cry, and then rush to the exits. That is not the French way."