As the going gets tougher for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, one ally has stepped up despite a recent straining of ties: France.
Paris has significantly boosted its military presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, plus in nearby seas, as both it and Washington nurture their budding rapprochement after a bitter falling out over the Iraq war.
French fighters have been flying sorties under U.S. command in Afghanistan since Aug. 16, and France also took command this month of an international naval task force on terrorism-related patrols in the seas between the Horn of Africa and Pakistan.
France has kept about 900 troops in Afghanistan since 2003, including 200 Special Forces soldiers fighting alongside the Americans. Its air force periodically has joined the U.S.-led coalition since taking its biggest role in the war’s opening weeks in 2002, when France had 5,500 troops in the region.
“It’s France’s wish to show that we are cooperating in the fight against terror and in support of you in Afghanistan,” said French Air Force Col. Gilles Michel, who oversees his country’s air force role in the theater. “We told the Americans, ’If you need some assets, we will provide them.”’
A French Defense Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with French custom, said Paris was determined to keep battling terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and was increasing its military cooperation in Afghanistan to support next month’s landmark legislative elections.
“We had a very clear position when it comes to Iraq,” the Paris-based official said. “That has nothing to do with our fight against terrorism, with France working with our American colleagues on the (NATO-led) ISAF.”
Since earlier this month, French Mirage-2000 fighters have been flying alongside U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs to assist American and Afghan ground troops near Kabul, Ghazni, Delaram and Qalat, said Capt. David Small, spokesman for U.S. Central Command Air Forces in Qatar.
Mirage F1-CR fighters also are handling reconnaissance missions, shooting intelligence video and imagery for targeting purposes, while French cargo planes supply bases in the theater.
A pair of French C-135 tanker planes, a version of the Boeing 707, are running air-to-air refueling for Mirages and Belgian and Dutch F-16s. By month’s end, French tankers also will be refueling U.S. A-10s, said Michel.
“From the U.S. side, having their different types of aircraft at our disposal certainly benefits us,” Small said. “It relieves some of the stress on the other aircraft. Having the Mirages there also provides a different skill set.”
France’s current deployment is its largest since the Afghan campaign’s early days, Michel said from Afghanistan’s Bagram air base. It includes some 500 French pilots, air controllers and ground crew who arrived this month at U.S.-operated bases in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Qatar.
But even as it takes a larger role alongside the United States in Afghanistan, France has not diluted its opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a policy that enraged Americans and led to boycotts of French products.
The bad blood even harmed military ties, especially after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld derided France as part of “old Europe.” Now, at the military and political levels, Paris and Washington are dusting off their old friendship, said the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon.
“U.S.-France military ties have always been good, except for a brief period when Rumsfeld sought payback over Iraq,” O’Hanlon said. “And more generally, there’s even an effort to mend fences at a political level.”
French and U.S. officials make clear that France still takes no direct role in Iraq.
But the French-led sea patrols between Pakistan and the Horn of Africa indirectly bolster the U.S. mission there by preventing sea-borne aid for Iraqi insurgents or Gulf-based terrorists allied with them.
Patrolling the seas
Up to a dozen French ships patrol the seas around Arabia, East Africa, Iran and Pakistan, halting suspect vessels heading for the Strait of Hormuz, which guards the entrance to the Persian Gulf — and Iraq.
France’s current command of the naval task force, which is under overall U.S. control, is its third. Warships from Germany, Pakistan, Canada, Britain and the United States also participate in three regional task forces.
France’s air force deployment in Afghanistan started Aug. 6 and will last three months, operating under the primary command of ISAF. It also increased its role in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, putting aircraft under U.S. command when they are available.
None of the six Mirage 2000 pilots flying close air support for U.S. ground troops have dropped bombs since they started flying eight to 10 weekly missions Aug. 16, each time spending about three hours over Afghanistan.
“We remind the bad guys that they might get a bomb on the head if they’re not careful,” warned Michel, who is an old hand at joint missions with the U.S. military, flying a French fighter in the 1991 Gulf War and in NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Kosovo.