BUCHAREST (Reuters) - France pledged on Wednesday to send up to 1,000 troops to Afghanistan in a move that will avert a Canadian threat to pull its contingent out of NATO’s war in the violent south, the alliance said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s offer of a battalion -- which French military sources put at between 800 and 1,000 soldiers -- comes as Paris prepares a possible return to NATO’s military command next year after more than four decades of absence.
“I can confirm the French government has offered a substantial military contribution to operations in Afghanistan,” a NATO spokesman said after the first session of a three-day summit of the 26-nation defense alliance in Bucharest.
He said the battalion would go to east Afghanistan, allowing U.S. troops stationed there to be sent to reinforce a 2,500-strong Canadian contingent in the south, now due to stay until 2011.
Ottawa had said it could pull its 2,500 troops out of the fight next year if the reinforcements were not forthcoming.
A spokeswoman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed the French offer and said the United States had subsequently confirmed its troops would go to the Afghan south, including the Kandahar province overseen by Canada.
“Many heads of government acknowledge Canada’s significant contribution in Afghanistan and decision to extend our presence,” the spokeswoman said.
French officials said there would be no official comment on the offer until the second day of the summit on Thursday, when Afghanistan is formally on the agenda.
Earlier on Wednesday U.S. President George W. Bush had urged NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan. He said NATO could not afford to lose its battle against Taliban insurgents and al Qaeda militants.
“Whatever the cost, however difficult, we cannot afford it, we must win,” he said in a pre-summit speech.
The summit is partly intended to send the message that NATO’s 47,000-strong force will stay in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to fight the insurgency.
The size of the French offer had been put in doubt on Tuesday when Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Paris was looking to send just several hundred more troops to Afghanistan.
That was short of the 1,000 extra soldiers some NATO allies had expected and it was not clear whether it would be enough to cover a Canadian demand for reinforcements in the south.
In Paris, a Sarkozy adviser said before the summit the French president had set out conditions for extra French troops in a letter to NATO allies, including an increase in international aid to Afghanistan.
“He calls for a coordinated strategy whose goal will be a stable Afghanistan, reconciled with itself and free of terrorism and drug trafficking,” the adviser said.
France is expected to seek U.S. backing for its drive to bolster European Union military structures during the second half of next year.
That is viewed as a precondition for its return to the military structures out of which General Charles de Gaulle pulled France in 1966 in a row over command arrangements.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Radu Marinas and David Brunnstrom in Bucharest, Paris bureau, writing by Mark John; editing by Timothy Heritage