KABUL, Afghanistan — France’s threat Friday to withdraw early from Afghanistan after an Afghan soldier killed four French troops and wounded 15 is a setback for the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to build a national army and allow foreign troops to go home.
The deadly shooting — the second against French forces in a month — is the latest in a rising number of disturbing attacks in which Afghan security forces or infiltrators have turned their guns on coalition forces.
It came during an especially deadly 24 hours for the international coalition, with six U.S. Marines killed in a helicopter crash Thursday night in southern Afghanistan.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces a potentially tough re-election campaign this spring, reacted swiftly and sternly to the killing of the French troops, who were unarmed when they were shot during a physical training exercise. He ordered French forces to stop training Afghan forces and suspended joint patrols.
“The French army is not in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers can shoot at them,” Sarkozy said in Paris. “From now on, all the operations of training and combat help by the French army are suspended.”
If security for the French troops is not restored, “the question of an early withdrawal of the French army would arise,” he said.
France’s threat comes at a time when the coalition is trying to reassure Afghanistan that it is not rushing to leave, that it will continue to develop the nation’s struggling security force, and that it will help the government negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban to end the decade-long war.
If France suspends training operations indefinitely or withdraws sooner, it would weaken the coalition and could prompt more troop-contributing nations to follow suit.
Through training of Afghan police and soldiers, the coalition hopes to wrap up its combat mission at the end of 2014 when foreign forces are to have gone home or moved into support roles.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said France was a valued member of a tightly knit NATO coalition. “I don’t want to get ahead of any discussions or decision that France might make with regard to its … presence as part of that coalition,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “I am in great sympathy with what happened to the French soldiers. It was terrible. And I can certainly appreciate the strong feelings that are being expressed.”
“We are in close contact with our French colleagues, and we have no reason to believe that France will do anything other than continue to be part of the very carefully considered transition process as we look at our exit,” Clinton added.
The unpopular Sarkozy has been struggling to revive his poll numbers at a time when the public has grown weary of France’s 10-year commitment in Afghanistan. Most voters are worried about jobs, the economy and state debt, and Sarkozy can ill-afford to let the war fester as another liability on his political balance sheet.
Sarkozy’s suspension of training and partnered operations — even if it strains the NATO campaign — releases a political pressure valve that at least shows he’s contemplating a way out from Afghanistan. The candidate who tops opinion polls, Socialist Francois Hollande, said Friday that if he were elected president, he would aim to pull all French forces out by the end of this year.
France is the fourth-largest force in the coalition, with 3,600 troops in Afghanistan. Six hundred are slated to leave this year and the rest by the end of 2014.
So far, 82 French troops have been killed, including two members of the French Foreign Legion who were shot and killed by an Afghan soldier on Dec. 29.
The Bulgarian state news agency BTA reported that that one of the four French troops killed Friday was a Bulgarian national, 34-year-old Svilen Simeonov. It quoted the Foreign Ministry press office as saying he had served as sergeant in the French Foreign Legion.
Afghan security forces or insurgents dressed in their uniforms have attacked and killed international troops or civilian trainers more than a dozen times in two years, according to an Associated Press count. Some of the attacks were conducted by presumed Taliban sleeper agents who had joined the Afghan forces, and others were by bona fide soldiers who became disgruntled or had emotional problems.
“We believe that they do appear to be increasing in frequency in recent months,” according to U.S. Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman who said the coalition was doing a trend analysis on the incidents. “What we can’t discern is a cause for that right now. … But we also don’t believe that that is an endemic or systemic problem.”
U.S. Gen. John Allen, top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, praised France’s contribution to the war and pledged to investigate the incident thoroughly and work with France on its response.
“We are committed to continuing to work with the government of Afghanistan to resolve this very serious issue of individuals targeting our forces,” he said in a statement Friday night.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Riga, Latvia, expressed sadness for the French people, but insisted that such incidents were “isolated.”
In Kabul, coalition spokesman German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson called the shooting “traumatic” and said it would negatively affect the trust between the more than 300,000 Afghan and 130,000 coalition forces.
“They are together in operations. They are together in camps. They are partnered. They have to trust each other. They are operating closely together,” Jacobson said.
“One thing that we are making very, very sure is that there is very careful vetting on the recruitment side. Obviously an incident like this morning has a negative effect on the trust side.”
Some U.S., French and Afghan officials called the attacker an Afghan soldier; others said only that the shooter was wearing an Afghan army uniform.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the French soldiers were unarmed when the attacker opened fire during a difficult physical training exercise at high altitude. He said the gunman was being held by an Afghan general “whom we trust.”
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid praised the attacker but did not claim he was an infiltrator or give other details.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the shooter was an Afghan man in an army uniform. He said the ministry sent a delegation to Kapisa to investigate.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the attacker appeared to have the authorizations needed to enter the Forward Operating Base in Gwan, an area of Tagab district of Kapisa province. Three-fourths of the 600 soldiers on the base are Afghan, the rest French, he said.
Despite the act of a lone gunman, Burkhard said French and Afghan forces have had a good relationship.
“After an unacceptable assassination like this, by one person among 3,000, it remains to be seen what the impact will be on the confidence that the two sides have with one another,” he said.
Burkhard said that for now, French forces would not be removed from joint bases. The French defense minister and the French army’s chief of staff were traveling to Afghanistan. After they report back, Sarkozy said the government will decide how to continue.
International affairs analyst Francois Heisbourg, head of the government-supported Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said the Afghan army has become part of the problem instead of the solution. The planned exit of foreign combat troops in 2014 is based on the premise that Afghan security forces would be able to take over.
“That doesn’t look like a very promising paradigm,” he said.
French forces can easily stop training Afghan forces by hunkering down in their barracks, but backing out of partnered combat operations is trickier, he said.
“Maybe they (training and combined operations) will resume in a degraded mode as a prelude to withdrawal — it’s always possible,” he said. “But I think we’re on the withdrawal ramp.
“I think it’s pretty clear that this is a prelude to anticipated withdrawal — without waiting for 2014.”
Heisbourg noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who expressed his deep regret over the attack, is scheduled to visit France next week to sign a friendship pact to guide relations after 2014. Karzai is negotiating similar agreements with the U.S. and Europe.
“It makes the politics much more complex for everybody — for the Americans as well as for the Europeans,” Heisbourg said.
So far this month, 28 international troops have been killed in Afghanistan.
All six U.S. Marines killed in the helicopter crash in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province were based in Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said Friday.
The Taliban said it shot down the helicopter, but NATO said no enemy activity was reported in the area at the time.
“We are looking into a technical fault at the moment, but the investigation is ongoing,” Jacobson said.
The crash was the deadliest in Afghanistan since August, when 30 U.S. troops died after a Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down in Wardak province.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet, Angela Charlton and Samantha Bordes in Paris and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.