KABUL, Sept 04 (SANA): Conflicting accounts of a Taliban ambush of an elite French military unit in the Surubi district of Kabul province on August 18 have raised new concerns about the future of France’s politically unpopular deployment in Afghanistan. Ten soldiers were killed and 21 wounded in one of the largest Taliban operations since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The French troops were part of a fresh group of 700 soldiers committed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to join over 2,000 French troops under International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command.
When the new French troops arrived they relieved two American battalions in the Kapisa region, a strategically important district near Kabul. A French officer described the French troops involved in the ambush as “experienced” and “combat-capable”. Nevertheless, the Taliban made a political statement by targeting the new additions to the French ISAF contingent. The proximity of a major Taliban operation to Kabul has alarmed many within the capital, who point out that previous attacks within Kabul’s security belt have heralded the eventual fall of the city to insurgent forces.
The multinational force struggled through difficult terrain and extreme heat along a difficult and winding mountainous road in an area known for Taliban activity. Army chief of staff General Jean-Louis Georgelin described the ambush as “a well-organized trap” on “terrain that was extremely favorable to the enemy”. The ambush was launched at 3:30 in the afternoon after the paratroopers left their APCs to reconnoiter a pass on foot.
As one survivor pointed out, the pass was nearly three hours out from the column’s starting point; “enough time for the Taliban to be warned by their accomplices of our arrival”. French General Michel Stollsteiner, ISAF commander in the Kabul region, stated, “In the past two weeks we had largely secured the zone but you have to be frank, we were guilty of overconfidence.”
French press interviews with survivors of the ambush describe a rapid breakdown in command and communications, with Taliban marksmen taking down French soldiers at will. Among the first to be killed were the deputy section leader and the radioman of the advance unit. The warrant officer in command was shot in the shoulder. Soon afterwards, the paratroopers’ radio communication with the RMT broke down.
Heavily outnumbered, the French remained pinned down and under fire from small arms, machine guns and rocket launchers for four hours without reinforcements. Ammunition for all weapons other than their assault rifles ran out as the soldiers were unable to reach supplies still in their vehicles, although a VAB with a section from the 35e Regiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste in the rear of the column was able to deploy the vehicle’s machine gun and four 120mm mortars in support.
Some of the wounded alleged that their unit was hit by fire from their Afghan allies and NATO aircraft. Fire from A-10 Thunderbolts was directed by the American special forces while a pair of F-15 fighters passed through without using their weapons because the French and Taliban were too closely intertwined.
An initial attempt by American helicopters to evacuate the wounded failed due to heavy fire. French EC725 Caracal helicopters arrived to provide fire support – one helicopter brought in a doctor and 10 French commandos from the rapid reaction force in Kabul. A group leader from the rapid reaction force who arrived after a 90-minute drive through difficult terrain described the situation on his arrival; “We couldn’t see the enemy and we didn’t know how many of them there were. We started climbing, but after 20 minutes we started coming under fire from the rear. We were surrounded.”
Mortars (81mm) also arrived with the reinforcements but helicopters were unable to evacuate the wounded until 8pm. Six hours after the ambush began, Taliban fighters began to break off, though many remained in the area, launching a last attack at 9am the next day.
A Taliban statement entitled “New and Interesting Information on the Killing and Wounding of the French Soldiers in Surubi” claimed that hundreds of Taliban fighters using heavy and light weapons had overwhelmed a French infantry battalion of 100 men and 18 tanks (APCs?) and other military vehicles. The statement describes the infliction of “hundreds” of French casualties and the destruction of five tanks and eight other military vehicles before locals descended to loot abandoned French weapons.
In the aftermath of the attack, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared, “Nobody is thinking of leaving Afghanistan,” but added a few days later, “We need what is called ‘Afghanization’, that’s to say, to pass responsibilities, all responsibilities, as quickly as possible to the Afghans.”
The French public has never had a taste for involvement in Afghanistan, reflected in a recent Le Parisien opinion poll that showed 55% of respondents believe France should withdraw from Afghanistan. With Prime Minister Francois Fillon calling for a September vote in parliament on the future of the French military commitment to Afghanistan, Sarkozy’s efforts to expand France’s role in that country may come at a considerable political cost.-SANA