France to boost deployment of troops to Afghanistan
WASHINGTON – France is expected to announce next week that it is nearly doubling its commitment of forces to the international deployment in Afghanistan, sending about 1,000 troops in the most concrete step yet taken by President Nicholas Sarkozy to support the U.S.-led campaign.
The announcement is expected at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, which will be attended by President Bush. But despite pleas from U.S. officials, France may be the only country to offer a significant number of new troops during the international conference, U.S. and alliance officials said.
“I’d love to be surprised,” said one NATO official involved in Afghan planning, adding that countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic are likely to increase contributions by a few hundred troops. “It may not be as much as is wanted, but it’s certainly going to be a lot better than nothing.”
French officials said this week that Sarkozy has yet to decide on final troop numbers or where precisely to send them. U.S. and alliance officials expect the troops to be sent to the country’s eastern provinces, currently under the command of a U.S. general.
The NATO official said the French deployment could free a battalion of U.S. troops to move into the restive southern provinces, where British, Canadian and Dutch forces have been engaged in heavy fighting against a resurgent Taliban for more than a year. The official, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal debates.
Some U.S. officers, including Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the overall commander for NATO’s Afghan mission, have suggested a heavier U.S. presence in the south would help combat the escalating violence there because American forces have better training and resources for counterinsurgency operations.
Any troop adjustments are uncertain, however. One senior U.S. military official said that McNeill has yet to decide whether to send additional American forces to the south. And French officials insisted that a final decision on where their troops will be sent has not yet been made.
Still, the alliance needs to find additional troops to send to the south because of a threat by Canada to withdraw its contingent of 2,500 without reinforcements from other allies.
Pentagon officials are increasingly concerned about rising violence in Afghanistan. McNeill would like two more combat brigades – or roughly 7,000 troops – to deal with problems in the south, the senior U.S. military official said. But with U.S. ground forces overstretched and allied governments unwilling to meet those numbers, the extra troops are unlikely.
At the same time, both American and alliance officials applaud a new French commitment, seen on both sides of the Atlantic as a symbol of France’s newfound enthusiasm for the alliance under Sarkozy.