PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy of France suspended military training and assistance for Afghan forces yesterday and said he would consider an early withdrawal from Afghanistan after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French soldiers on a base in eastern Afghanistan.
The attack was the latest in a series of episodes in which Afghan soldiers or police officers, or insurgents wearing official uniforms, have opened fire on soldiers of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The killings are designed to sap Western morale and hasten the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan sooner than an agreed NATO deadline of the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are supposed to be ready to defend the country on their own. A rising number of the attacks have also been born of simmering animosity between coalition forces and the Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train.
With many European countries facing unprecedented economic pressures at home, such attacks by Afghan soldiers on foreign troops have added to public questioning of the value of continued involvement in Afghanistan. If France were to reduce its troops early or precipitously it could spur other countries to follow suit, Western and Afghan officials warned.
France has been a firm ally of the United States in Afghanistan, with the fourth-largest contingent of troops, according to NATO figures, and 82 French soldiers have died, many of them killed fighting in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan, where yesterday’s shooting occurred.
Facing a fierce battle for his reelection, Sarkozy said security had better improve in Afghanistan, if France were to stay.
“If security conditions are not established clearly, then the question of an early return of the French army will arise,’’ he told diplomats in a foreign-affairs speech at the Elysee Palace. “It will be a difficult decision that we will have to take in the coming days, but I have to do it while being able to face the French public and our soldiers.’’
France and its army “is at the side of its allies, but we cannot accept that a single one of our soldiers be killed or wounded by our allies,’’ he said. “It is unacceptable; I will not accept it.’’
Sarkozy’s main rival, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, who is leading in the polls for the spring vote, immediately repeated his call for French troops to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, a break with NATO solidarity.
The sense of French wavering was felt strongly in Kabul. Sarkozy’s talk of leaving early, even if rhetorical, “is not very good in terms of alliance cohesion,’’ said a Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. An early French withdrawal could lay bare “real cracks in the coalition’’ at a time when the alliance is seeking a cohesive position to end the war.
NATO is trying to convince the Afghan government of its long-term commitment while pushing the Taliban insurgents to negotiate a peace deal rather than continue fighting. Both efforts have been only moderately successful.
There is no question that the patience of America’s NATO allies with the expensive, deadly Afghan war has been running out. They joined the war alongside the United States, which had been attacked by Al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001, from its sanctuaries in Afghanistan. But the Taliban government is long gone, Osama bin Laden is dead, and Al Qaeda has been diminished and mostly pushed into Pakistan.
Washington, too, is looking for a dignified exit.
Yesterday’s episode was the second fatal attack in a month involving an Afghan soldier firing on French troops. On Dec. 29, two French soldiers were killed by a man wearing an Afghan uniform, who was shot dead.
Yesterday, the gunman turned his weapon on unarmed French troops, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province and Lieutenant Colonel Michel Sabatier, a spokesman for French forces in Afghanistan.
Sabatier told news agencies that the 35 French troops, embedded with Afghans at a base in Gwan, were not wearing body armor when the Afghan soldier opened fire with an automatic weapon. The gunman is in custody, a NATO official said. Eight of the 15 who were wounded are in serious condition, the colonel said.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said he was “grieved by the incident’’ and confirmed that an initial investigation indicated that the gunman was an Afghan National Army soldier.