France is considering an early exit from Afghanistan after four unarmed French soldiers were yesterday killed by an Afghan army trainee.
President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the suspension of all training activities by French forces in Afghanistan after the second attack of its kind in a month. French ministers said that their 3,600 troops would be withdrawn unless Kabul provided “credible assurances” that the vetting of Afghan recruits would be improved.
An Afghan army trainee opened fire with an automatic weapon on French soldiers during a sports exercise yesterday at a base high in the mountains at Gwan in eastern Afghanistan. Four soldiers were killed and 15 wounded, including eight seriously.
This was the latest of a series of similar attacks on Nato troops by Afghan trainees, including the killing of two members of the French Foreign Legion in September.
Yesterday’s attack was part of one the blackest days for western troops in Afghanistan for many months. Six US marines also died when their helicopter crashed in Helmand province. US sources said it was not immediately clear whether the helicopter had been brought down by the Taliban rebels.
French ministers repeatedly insisted yesterday that the killing of their soldiers should be considered as “murders”, not combat deaths. The foreign minister Alain Juppé spoke of a “premeditated murder in a camp shared by the Afghan and French armies”.
President Sarkozy is already under pressure from opponents in this spring’s presidential election who have called for the withdrawal of French troops before a 2014 Nato deadline. In a speech a few minutes after the new killings were announced Mr Sarkozy said that the “early return” of French soldiers would be considered if “security conditions are not clearly established”. “From now on, all the operations of training and combat help by the French army are suspended,” he added.
The defence minister Gérard Longuet flew to Kabul yesterday. Mr Juppé said he would seek guarantees on the recruitment procedures for Afghan soldiers. If the assurances were not sufficient, France would “accelerate” the withdrawal of its troops.
President Sarkozy said he would discuss France’s continuing presence in Afghanistan when the country’s president, Hamid Karzai, visits Paris next Friday. “We are friends and allies of the Afghan people but I cannot accept Afghan soldiers shooting French soldiers,” he said. “We will be faced with a difficult decision in the next few weeks.”
France provides the fourth largest contingent of the 30,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan. President Sarkozy has announced that, like the 90,000 US troops, they will return home by the end of 2013.
The front-runner for the April-May French presidential polls, the Socialist candidate François Hollande yesterday repeated his call for all French troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2012.
Last year was the worst in the 10 year history of French deployment in Afghanistan. The 26 soldiers killed brought the total number of French deaths to 83.