BUCHAREST, Romania – France will send hundreds of combat soldiers to bolster NATO in Afghanistan, but in announcing the beefed up commitment Thursday French President Nicolas Sarkozy challenged the military alliance to agree on conditions for success in the war-ravaged country.
Afghanistan is a strategic issue, he told leaders at the Bucharest summit behind closed doors.
“France will play its full part in this collective action,” Sarkozy said in his speech, a copy of which was released by his office.
“I decided to ramp up France’s military presence with a battalion to be deployed to the eastern region.”
The speech did not spell out the number of troops, but speaking to reporters afterward he said the number is 700.
Sarkozy told the leaders that NATO must agree to remain committed to the mission over the long term, implement a comprehensive military and political strategy and gradually hand over responsibility to the Afghans.
U.S. President George W. Bush thanked Sarkozy for the contribution during the closed door session and said he’ll now be able to move American forces to help the Canadians in Kandahar, said a senior NATO official.
Sarkozy made a passionate plea for the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“If we want to leave Afghanistan one day, we must win today,” he said.
“It’s not when it’s difficult that you abandon your friends.”
A senior American official, speaking earlier on background, said the French are not the only ones expected to increase their commitment.
“There were also a number of countries who made very clear that they are going to increase their own contribution, whether in terms of military forces, in terms of training forces, in terms of further funds for reconstruction, further commitment on the civilian side,” said the official.
The official did not name the countries, but said they were expected to make formal presentations Thursday.
NATO currently has 47,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
Ottawa had threatened to withdraw its 2,500 soldiers from Kandahar unless NATO came up with 1,000 reinforcements and the Canadian Defence Department was able to acquire battlefield helicopters and unmanned spy planes.
The French decision takes some heat off Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is slated to meet Thursday with the British and Australian prime ministers, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Going into the morning session in Bucharest, there had been confusion about how many troops France would actually contribute.
Typically a battalion amounts to between 700 and 800 soldiers, but French officials had been sending conflicting signals about the size of the planned force.
The Americans have said, as a result of the French decision, they will commit additional resources to the southern region, including Kandahar, where the Canadians have been demanding help.
The Pentagon has sent 3,500 U.S. marines to Kandahar for a seven-month deployment and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, says they are currently not scheduled to be replaced when their tour expires.
Mullen suggested the U.S. will be hard-pressed to maintain the surge in Iraq and increase troop commitments in Afghanistan.