Wednesday, June 30, 2004

France yesterday blocked a U.S.-backed plan to use a special NATO force to safeguard elections in Afghanistan this fall, despite a plea from Afghan leaders that the troops are badly needed.

French President Jacques Chirac’s veto of the plan on the second and final day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s summit in Istanbul was the latest in a string of direct rebukes to President Bush in recent days and a sign that French-U.S. relations have not overcome the bitter divisions stemming from the Iraq war last year.

The Afghanistan mission was vetoed despite a direct plea from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said continuing violence by Islamic fundamentalist forces in the country was a threat to the fledgling democratic government.

“I would like you to please hurry, as NATO, to Afghanistan. Come sooner than September,” said Mr. Karzai, who traveled to Istanbul to make his appeal.

While President Bush in recent days has talked up trans-Atlantic unity and praised the early transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, Mr. Chirac has pointedly criticized U.S. positions on Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even the leading French daily Le Monde said Mr. Chirac’s remarks had earned him a reputation in Istanbul as a “killjoy.”

“We are friends [of the United States], we are allies,” Mr. Chirac said in the Turkish city, “but we are not servants.”

The sharpest exchange — and the most politically sensitive for France — came over Mr. Bush’s wholehearted endorsement earlier this week of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. The president was largely restating long-standing U.S. policy regarding Turkey, a major strategic ally, but Mr. Chirac took unusually strong exception.

Mr. Bush “has nothing to say on this subject,” Mr. Chirac said. “It is as if I were to tell the United States how to manage its relations with Mexico.”

The prospect of Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, joining the European Union is a deeply divisive issue in France, which faces severe social strains from its large and growing Muslim minority population. Many in Western Europe fear the immigration and labor-market effects of Turkey’s membership on the bloc.

Mr. Chirac has said that he thinks eventual EU membership for Turkey is “desirable.” But his own party, the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, campaigned in the recent European Parliament elections against Turkey’s bid.

Polls show that two-thirds of the French population opposes Turkish membership.

Mr. Bush and senior U.S. officials have attempted to brush off some of Mr. Chirac’s more provocative statements, focusing instead on improving U.S.-European ties since the end of the Iraq war.

State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said U.S. and French leaders had “excellent meetings” at the Group of Eight summit in the U.S. state of Georgia, the U.S.-EU summit in Ireland, and the NATO gathering in Istanbul, all held this month.

But U.S. officials in Istanbul, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were seething privately over the French veto of an expanded NATO mission in Afghanistan and are contemplating referring the question to a separate NATO military council of which France is not a member.

Mr. Karzai has implored the 26-nation alliance for more troops to provide security for critical national elections set for September. A NATO deployment now provides security for the capital, Kabul, and for a few outlying provinces.

Elements of the ousted fundamentalist Taliban regime have vowed to undermine the vote. Two female workers engaged in voter registration were killed by a bomb in the provincial capital of Nangarhar on Saturday, the latest in a string of attacks on voters and election officials.

“Tragically, we should expect that the terrorists and extremists will launch more such attacks to derail Afghanistan’s historic elections,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told a news conference in Kabul yesterday.

The Pentagon had supported a plan to use troops from the new NATO Response Force to provide extra security during the Afghan campaign season.

But Mr. Chirac objected, saying the force, which has a strong French contingent, was formed to meet major security crises affecting the alliance.

“It shouldn’t be used in any old matter,” he said in Istanbul.

The French also took the lead in opposing U.S. and British efforts to establish a clear role for NATO inside Iraq now that sovereignty has been officially transferred to an Iraqi interim government.

NATO leaders agreed to help train Iraqi security forces after France, Germany and other countries blocked more ambitious troop deployment ideas pushed by Washington and London.

But, even then, Mr. Chirac insisted that the training proposal meant that only individual NATO countries, not the alliance as a whole, could provide such help.

Sending troops into Iraq under NATO command would be “dangerous, counterproductive and misunderstood by the Iraqi people,” he said.

In Istanbul, he also repeated his criticism of the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying American efforts to freeze Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat out of the peace process were misguided.

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