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Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2010-07-09

Two weeks after the sacking of Stanley McChrystal over comments that appeared in a magazine article, a top French general is under fire for publicly criticising the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, reviving doubts about the overall war strategy.

As the Afghan war nears its ninth year, more Western generals are being lost to the media minefield than to the Taliban insurgency.

Two weeks after the sacking of Stanley McChrystal over comments that appeared in a magazine article, a highly-respected French general has come under fire from top defence officials for criticising the US-led war effort in Afghanistan, reviving doubts about the overall war strategy.

In an interview with French daily Le Monde on July 2, General Vincent Desportes, director of the Interforces Defence College in Paris (an organisation dedicated to training staff officers), slammed the US president’s indecision in implementing his new Afghan strategy.

“It appears that President Obama wasn’t very sure of his choice,” said Gen. Desportes. “After much debate, he eventually called for an extra 30,000 troops. Everybody knew it had to be zero or 100,000 extra troops, one can’t wage a half-war”.

The 57-year-old French general also crossed a red line by claiming that the number of French troops in Afghanistan – some 3,750 - did not give Paris any say on the conduct of the war.

“It’s an American war. When you’re a one-percent shareholder, you don’t get to speak out. The Allies have no strategic voice,” Gen. Desportes told Le Monde.

Afghan taboo

Desportes’ blunt remarks shook the French defence establishment, with Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Guillaud swiftly calling for action against the outspoken general. On July 8, French Defence Minister Herve Morin told French channel BFM TV that Gen. Desportes would be “punished” for publicly challenging the government’s policy.

Contrary to the situation in the US, the Afghan war strategy is not the subject of hot political debate in France. According to investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine, President Sarkozy requested that neither military nor government officials comment publicly on the conflict, in order to avoid a politically perilous controversy surrounding French involvement in Afghanistan. But opinion polls showed that some 80 percent of French voters were against Sarkozy’s decision to send extra troops to Afghanistan last year.

Though Desportes’ comments come on the heels of the McChrystal affair, French military experts are careful to point out the differences between the two situations. “It’s difficult to link the McChrystal affair with Vincent Desportes’ interview,” Reserve Colonel Pierre Servent, a professor at the Interforces Defence College, told “McChrystal was fired because his aides made inflammatory remarks about US leaders (…) Regarding Gen. Desportes, who is an academic, it’s more of an analysis questioning France’s power of decision in Afghanistan and a direct criticism of a foreign head of state. That’s something he’s not supposed to do”.

Model soldier

The public remarks come as a surprise from Gen. Desportes, considered a model soldier from the French military administration.

He has enjoyed a dazzlingly successful career, rising up the ranks to fill successive crucial positions, including military attache to the French embassy in the US and head of the Forces Employment Doctrine Centre, the top military research institution in France. He took the helm of the Interforces Defence College in 2008.

According to Colonel Pierre Servent, Gen. Desportes may have felt emboldened enough by his impending retirement to speak his mind: “Only two or three weeks from retirement, he doesn’t risk any real sanction. And his comments won’t have any impact on the conduct of operations in Afghanistan”. contacted Gen. Desportes, who declined to comment as to why he publicly expressed his concerns over the Afghan war strategy. The general said he was “waiting for the storm to pass” before talking to the press again.

Date created : 2010-07-09

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