вторник, 13 марта 2012 г.

Defense minister: France eyes bigger Afghan role

France is considering whether to send more special forces, aircraft or firepower for NATO's fight against the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan, the French defense minister said Tuesday.

Herve Morin told lawmakers the special forces could be sent to gather intelligence but not to fight, adding that any decision would ultimately rest with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Morin and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner faced questions Tuesday before a parliamentary panel as part of an examination by French leaders of the circumstances of an ambush by insurgents east of Kabul last week that left 10 French soldiers dead. The incident sparked debate in France about its role in the war-battered country.

Despite recent polls suggesting the majority of French people favor a pullout from the troubled Central Asian nation, the two ministers emphasized the necessity of staying the course in Afghanistan.

Sarkozy _ speaking at a separate event before members of the regiment that lost eight soldiers in last week's attack _ said France's status as a major player on the international stage depends on its continued participation in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

"I say it with force: By abandoning the Afghan people to their bad luck and their tormentors, by abandoning out democratic allies and our responsibilities as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, we would be in a way abandoning the security of the French people and our status as a great power," Sarkozy said during his visit to the southern town of Castres, where the hard-hit regiment was based.

"The combat that they are leading in Afghanistan is a just combat, a combat that we must not lose," Sarkozy said.

Morin said during the parliamentary question-and-answer session that recent Taliban attacks were aimed more at spooking the West than regaining territory.

"For them, the goal is ... to hit our spirits, to cut our forces off from the support of public opinion, to sow doubts in Western public opinion so that certain countries leave," he told the lawmakers.

Morin said the Taliban are changing tactics, moving from suicide bombings to well-planned ambushes _ which he called "every soldier's dread." He said he would soon present Sarkozy with a string of proposals aimed at responding to the changing tactics.

Possible proposals include the deployment of more special forces, drone aircraft, greater firepower or more helicopters, he said.

Still, Morin acknowledged that even beefed-up equipment would not guarantee the safety of French troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

"It's not because you have extra drones or helicopters that you'll avoid that Talibans who are hidden in the mountains appear and decide to launch an operation," Morin told lawmakers.

He advocated the deployment of special forces to help in intelligence-gathering, as "In such zones, human intelligence is more important than technical intelligence."

Currently, French special forces in Afghanistan are involved only in the training of Afghan troops.

France has been part of the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan since its inception in 2001, when the alliance toppled the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. France has 2,600 troops on Afghan soil and another 700 in support roles in the region. NATO has about 50,000 troops in the country.

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Associated Press writers Laurent Pirot in Castres, France, and Jamey Keaten and Jenny Barchfield in Paris contributed to this report.

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