France Blocks U.S. on Elite Force for Afghanistan
Tue Jun 29, 2004 08:27 AM ET
By John Chalmers
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - France has blocked a U.S. bid to deploy NATO's new strike force to safeguard Afghanistan's elections, stoking tension between the two allies that fell out over the Iraq war, diplomats said Tuesday.
"France, and to a lesser extent others such as Spain, are suspicious about using the NATO Response Force (NRF)," said one envoy at the alliance summit in Istanbul.
"It says the force is not ready for this kind of environment and should not be used simply as a sticking plaster for troop shortages on routine operations."
France's opposition to a proposal that could help resolve NATO's problems finding troops to make the September polls safe exasperated Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who pushed the idea hard at a meeting of allied defense ministers.
A senior U.S. official said Rumsfeld had suggested that the alliance could sometimes use its Defense Planning Committee -- on which France has no seat because it is not part of NATO's integrated military structure -- to authorize an NRF deployment.
Such a decision would normally be taken in the North Atlantic Council, a decision-by-consensus body at which all 26 member nations of NATO are represented.
Chirac told a news conference that the NRF -- set up last year with a heavy French contingent but not due to become fully operational until October 2006 -- should only be used when there is a serious security crisis, not for Afghan-style missions.
"The NRF is not designed for this. It shouldn't be used just for any old matter," he said. He has added that an overt NATO presence in Afghanistan could in itself exacerbate security problems during the elections.
Chirac undermined efforts in Istanbul to portray the transatlantic alliance as united once more after the divisions sparked by last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, of which Paris and Berlin were Europe's fiercest critics.
Shortly after the allies had agreed Monday to help the new Baghdad government train security forces, Chirac said he still opposed a formal NATO presence in Iraq.
He also criticized President Bush's support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, saying it was none of his business.
The NRF is being set up to give NATO the military capability to do what it could not do after the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities in 2001: strike back quickly and forcefully when an ally is attacked by a distant foe.
A cutting-edge multinational force with warships, fighter planes and eventually over 20,000 troops, it will be lethal, agile and ready to be deployed to hotspots within five days.
NATO plans to deploy a battalion of around 1,000 troops to Kabul during the elections and some 500 to its five military-backed "reconstruction teams" in northern provinces.
Diplomats said allies had not yet committed all those forces. This means they will not be in place to help with voter registration, which has been dogged by Taliban militia attacks.
One European official said the U.S.-French tussle was more about procedure. Paris is concerned that sending the NRF to Afghanistan could set a precedent for using it as a "toolbox" whenever NATO has problems pooling forces for an operation.
"France worries ... (this) would lead to an automatism jeopardizing the principle that a political decision must be taken before NATO commits to operations such as election protection in Afghanistan," the official said.