September 17, 2008 / 3:54 AM / 9 years ago

France wants Europe to lift Afghan troop restrictions

<p>A French soldier from the NATO forces keeps watch as Afghan women and their children arrive to attend a free medical assistance camp by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in the outskirts of Kabul April 3, 2008.Ahmad Masood</p>

CANBERRA (Reuters) - France on Wednesday asked its European allies to relax restrictions on troop deployment and operations in Afghanistan just a month after losing 10 soldiers in a Taliban ambush.

Limits on troop operations and years of military underspending in Europe outside the United Kingdom and France were damaging the coalition war effort, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said on a visit to Australia.

"Most of Europe has made NATO responsible for their security. Therefore, the weakness of Europe is typified by what you see in Afghanistan," Morin told journalists.

NATO has struggled to get major nations to contribute more to its Afghan force, and as the death toll rises the challenge only gets greater.

Last month was the deadliest for foreign troops since the conflict began, according to independent website icasualties.org. Forty-three troops were killed, including the 10 French soldiers hit in a single Taliban ambush.

Many NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan have "national caveats" that restrict how their troops may be used, limiting their flexibility.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last year compared the problem to a chess game in which one side enjoyed full freedom of movement and the other could only move a single space in a single direction.

Australia and the United States, both close allies, have been critical of European countries for not doing enough to combat the Taliban in their mountain havens.

Australia, an original member of the U.S-led coalition that arrived in 2001 to topple the Taliban, still has around 1,000 troops in the restive Oruzgan province, including special forces.

Morin said "not a cigarette paper in width" separated his own views from those of his Australian counterpart Joel Fitzgibbon after 10 French troops were killed and 21 wounded by the Taliban on August 18.

"We share the point of view that the effectiveness of the forces in place in Afghanistan depends very heavily on the conditions that are applied for their use. Caveats prevent the best possible application of the forces," he said.

Morin said he and Fitzgibbon, and German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, hoped to visit Afghanistan in December to inspect security for themselves.

Jung visited the country earlier this month to meet with tribal leaders and express sympathy after German troops shot and killed a woman and two children who failed to stop at a roadblock, leading to fears of reprisal attacks.

Morin said "rumors and lies" in media reports, and an "almost obsessive denigration of what is being done on the ground" were also damaging the coalition war effort and eroding public support for the war in western countries.

France has 3,300 troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and after last month's ambush said it may send special forces troops back for the first time since 2007.

Morin is in Australia for two days to discuss Afghanistan and boost security cooperation between France and Australia in the South Pacific.

Editing by Valerie Lee

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