How the Taliban gave a French lesson
By Andrew McGregor
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.
On August 18, 30 soldiers of the 8eme Regiment Parachutiste d'Infanterie de
Marine (8th RPIMa - Airborne Infantry) and another 30 from the Regiment de
Marche du Tchad (RMT) were tasked with reconnoitering the Uzbeen valley route
between the Tagab district of Kapisa and the Surubi district of Kabul
provinces. They were joined by two sections of Afghan troops and a unit of
American special forces. Most of the French were carried in armored vanguard
vehicles (Vehicule de l'Avant Blinde - VAB), armored personnel carriers built
by GIAT Industries.
Formed in 1951 for service in Indochina, the 8th RPIMa was dissolved after
being virtually annihilated in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, only to be
revived in 1956 for service in the Algerian conflict. Since its relocation from
Algeria to the French garrison town of Castres in 1963, the 8th RPIMa has been
deployed in at least 15 countries on various missions, including recent
deployments in the first Gulf War in 1991, Cambodia, Kurdish northern Iraq, the
Congo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Five-hundred paratroopers of the RPIMa
were sent to Afghanistan in June and July.
"Marine" units like the 8th RPIMa are not comparable to the US or British
marines; the name refers rather to the 19th century Ministere de la Marine
which was responsible for French armed forces overseas, as opposed to the
metropolitan army, which came under the Ministry of War. The troupes de marine
became troupes coloniales as part of the French Colonial Army in 1900 with a
consequent change in the titles of the units involved, but the term "marine"
was revived after the post-war collapse of the French empire to signify
volunteer units designated for overseas service. The all-volunteer troupes de
marine include infantry, light cavalry, artillery and airborne infantry units.
The Regiment de Marche du Tchad is a mechanized unit of the troupes de marine.
Now based in France, the RMT was formed in 1943 from metropolitan soldiers
serving in the Regiment des Tirailleurs Senegalais du Tchad after rallying to
the Free French cause during General Philippe Leclerc's campaign in Chad.
Four-hundred and fifty members of the RMT were sent to Afghanistan in May;
another 150 serve as peacekeepers in Lebanon. The French force also included a
small number of men from the 35eme Regiment d'Artillerie Parachutiste (35e RAP
- Airborne Artillery Regiment).
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
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
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.
Despite official assurances that nearly all the casualties occurred in the
first minutes of the ambush, other accounts suggested that four soldiers were
captured before being killed by Taliban fighters. An investigative report by
French weekly Le Canard enchaine claimed that the column's interpreter
disappeared only hours before the operation began, suggesting the French troops
were betrayed either by the interpreter or by Afghan troops attached to the
column. The report repeated the claim four French soldiers were captured and
executed by the Taliban shortly after the ambush began.
During the rescue of the wounded, an armored car of the RMT overturned when the
road collapsed and the vehicle fell into a ravine, killing a Kanak trooper from
New Caledonia and injuring four others. A medic from the 2eme Regiment Etranger
Parachutiste (Foreign Legion) was also killed after making several forays to
bring in wounded comrades from the 8th RPIMa.
Unlike the first-hand accounts carried by the press, French Defense Minister
Herve Morin insisted that reinforcements were sent within 20 minutes and there
were no indications of friendly fire. Pentagon and NATO spokesmen also denied
having any evidence of such incidents. The Afghan Ministry of Defense stated
that 13 Taliban fighters, including one Pakistani, were killed in the battle.
Some French officers claimed 40 to 70 militants were killed, but acknowledged
finding only one body. Claude Gueant, general secretary of French President
Nicolas Sarkozy, maintained "the majority of the assailants were not Afghans".
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.
The region in which the attack took place is considered a stronghold of
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i Islami movement, which also issued a claim of
responsibility for the attack.
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 ambush and recent suicide attacks on American outposts reveal an escalation
in the violence and effectiveness of Taliban attacks on Western forces in
Afghanistan. Added to the steady attrition of NATO, ISAF and US personnel,
these new attacks are intended to remind the West that despite seven years of
campaigning, the Taliban are as strong as ever. Since the ambush, the French
deployment in Afghanistan has come under sharp criticism from the public, the
press and opposition politicians.
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.