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Death of Four French Soldiers: Sarkozy Revives a Neglected Debate

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France and the United States are not always on the same wavelength, but they share at least one thing this week: Sorrow. On Thursday, six American soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Now comes the news that four French soldiers have been killed there.

Reacting to this bad news, Nicolas Sarkozy said that the issue of an early withdrawal is raised. He also announced that military training and operations with the Afghan army have been suspended. By making such a declaration -- even if it seems to be more a threat than a real goal -- the president has put the question of the French presence in Afghanistan into the public debate. This is a turn around: Unlike in America, this subject has been almost completely absent since the beginning of the presidential campaign.

Sarkozy's reaction is a big personal change. France went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 under the NATO banner. In 2011, like Obama, he announced the withdrawal of the French troops by the end of 2014. Unlike some of his political opponents, Sarkozy has always stayed aligned with Obama's policy. But he has kept silent on the whole subject since the beginning of the presidential campaign. Now he appears not only prepared to break rank with the Americans but to also put the subject back on the table.

In America, the subject of troop withdrawal still has its place in the campaign. On Jan. 19, Mitt Romney criticized President Obama: "This president has done an extraordinary thing... He announced the date of the withdrawal of our surge forces based upon a political calendar, not the calendar that the commanders on the ground said... That was wrong." The Republican candidate want to see a force stay in Afghanistan in order to lead "special operations."

In France up until the recent four deaths there has been very little public debate about the French presence in Afghanistan. Voices of opposition are only raised when soldiers die. When two soldiers were killed last December, bringing the French death toll to 78, François Hollande, the Socialist Party (PS) candidate, asserted his position on the withdrawal of troops. If he is elected, French soldiers will be back home by the end of 2012, whatever the decision of NATO and the United States is. End of debate until these recent deaths have revived it again.

This French political inertia has much to do with the fact that after 10 years in Afghanistan there is not much to show for it. The two main parties are a bit embarrassed with the issue of Afghanistan. Yes, Al Qaeda network has been destroyed in Afghanistan and the Taliban regime has been overthrown. This objective, pursued by France with NATO, has long been achieved. But the long term objectives of stability have not been reached: the Taliban still have a strong hold over the Afghan population. The rule of law still does not exist everywhere. Corruption is still widespread across the country and the behavior of soldiers is sometimes shocking.

At a time of economic crisis, with France losing her AAA status, Sarkozy is fighting to save what little credibility he has. Putting the Afghan question on the table up to this point has been very risky for him. But after the recent deaths he has no choice but to be firm: Elections are coming and he wants to be the "man of the situation." He has to show that French soldiers can not risk their lives helping the Afghan army if turns on them as appears to have happened in this most recent incident (even if we still not know whether the killer was a real soldier or a man dressed like one).

But bringing up the subject of an early withdrawal draws attention to the lack of any clear outcome for the French in Afghanistan. It reminds all French people that Sarkozy is the one who sent French troops into the dangerous Kapisa and Surobi regions in 2009. He is the one who wanted to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. Since becoming president, Sarkozy has always wanted to assert French power on the international scene. According to him, this meant alining French military strategy with the U.S. But Afghanistan is the first big operation since France returned to NATO's military command and it is a failure...

General Vincent Desportes -- who was punished by the Defense Minister Hervé Morin after having said France is in a bad way in Afghanistan -- points out the less soldiers you have in the field the easier it is to be attacked and killed. "France also has to keep up its international reputation. We committed to NATO and we will have to see it through to the end," he adds. His comment shows there is no easy answer. Even the Socialist Party, which has been more outspoken about withdrawing the troops, is often ambiguous on this subject. Didier Boulaud, the former PS headperson for Foreign affairs exposed PS ambiguity when he said in 2008: "We did not say that we have to withdraw from Afghanistan, we of course know it is impossible. We said we want to put an end to the blind escalation under these conditions."

Will President Sarkozy's recent statement wake the French up? It will be a difficult job. It's not just the politicians who are reticent. According to one poll published in August 2011, 76 percent of the population is against the French military presence in Afghanistan. But there is little debate on the question. News coverage is especially weak. Giselle Sanchez, a soldier's mother, realized it in 2010 when her son was sent to Afghanistan: She saw "by following the news that we hardly ever spoke about what happened there." Contacted by the news website Rue89, she explains she decided to create a blog "because people have to know France sent some soldiers there."

It is tragic that it takes the death of four more soldiers for the French public to engage in a real debate about Afghanistan. But the opportunist statements of a president seeking reelection are likely to rebound on him. They implicitly admit that NATO has not succeeded in establishing a stable state and the rule of law in Afghanistan. And they do not address the real question: What will happen to Afghan civilians after a NATO withdrawal ?