Q. – This was your fifth visit to Afghanistan in a year. Is it important for you to go and meet the soldiers?
THE MINISTER – The main aim of this visit was to meet our forces still present on the ground, to let them know I haven’t forgotten them. Over the past six months we’ve talked a lot about Mali and our forces’ exceptional work there.
But in Afghanistan too, our forces carried out a very effective disengagement. It was also a special moment, because after the withdrawal of combat forces before last Christmas, we were reaching the end of the logistical withdrawal period.
Today a page is being turned, with the presence until the end of 2014 of 500 French soldiers, who will continue carrying out essential missions: training the Afghan army and running the military hospital and Kabul International Airport.
Q. – Will those missions continue after 2014?
THE MINISTER – They’re set to continue in the framework of the Franco-Afghan friendship treaty, whatever the new shape of the coalition from 1 January 2015 onwards. (…)
Q. – Is the Afghan army sufficiently trained to ensure the country’s security?
THE MINISTER – The Afghan army bears no resemblance to the skeleton it was in 2001. It’s been structured, organized and trained since the transition mechanism was established in 2011. It’s taking responsibility for the different regions hitherto entrusted to coalition forces.
It’s taking over the mission with great determination and skill, even though it still has a lot of progress to make in terms of coordination and managing its troops. But the major issue is the political power.
Q. – You met Afghan President Hamid Karzai during your visit to Afghanistan. What were your impressions of the meeting?
THE MINISTER – A certain peace of mind regarding the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan forces, and a determination to continue the relationship with France. The solution for Afghanistan’s future will be political and must incorporate the moderate Taliban.
Today the problem is finding the right forum for the talks on implementing the political transition in 2014. I arrived at a time when there were strong tensions with the United States. They seem to be calming down.
Q. – There was an attack on the presidential palace while you were in the country. Are you worried about the current increase in the number of attacks by insurgents?
THE MINISTER – We’re reaching a decisive phase: the 18 months between now and the end of 2014. There’s going to be the presidential election, the transformation of the coalition’s presence and the change in the future coalition’s status.
Because the inclusive negotiation is currently making no headway, terrorist actions are continuing during what’s called the fighting season. It’s intensifying around Kabul, the centre of power, with actions that seek to be very symbolic, with high media impact. The last one was the airport; just now it was the presidential palace. This justifies a political solution even more.
Q. – Are you optimistic about Afghanistan’s future?
THE MINISTER – If the conditions for the transition include the different players throughout Afghanistan, there will be consensus on the organization of the presidential election initially, and then on a candidate.
It’s a delicate job, a job of confidence-building in which France can do her own bit, make her own contribution.
Q. – How do you respond to the – particularly Russian – critics who believe the coalition is leaving Afghanistan too soon?
THE MINISTER – Russia and China are wondering about Afghanistan’s stability following the departure of the coalition forces, and they’d like them to stay. That’s also the case of the neighbouring countries, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. (…)
Q. – Has the French army gained any benefits from its participation in the Afghanistan intervention?
THE MINISTER – In purely technical and operational terms, the mission has hardened our ground forces and strengthened joint action by the armed forces. And that’s enabled the French army to be part of an international coalition in the long term.
It partly owes the effectiveness it’s shown in Mali to the fact that it was very well honed after Afghanistan. It had motivated, professional forces with the best possible equipment for operations.
Unfortunately, the experience gained in Afghanistan also brought with it 88 soldiers’ deaths and 600 injured military personnel, and I don’t forget these.
Q. – Is France’s mission in Mali set to last?
THE MINISTER – For the moment there are 3,600 soldiers. This figure will fall at the end of the summer to 2,000 soldiers, and at the end of the year will reach about 1,000, who will remain for a time. They’ll have to conduct counter-terrorism missions if need be.
But the operation is a complete success, coupled with political confirmation in the agreement signed in Ouagadougou a few days ago, which made it possible to calm the tensions between several ethnic groups, particularly those of the north and south. The election will take place on 28 July as planned.
DEFENCE WHITE PAPER
Q. – The White Paper on defence and national security imposes cost reductions. Will the French army still have the capability to conduct these kinds of operations in future?
THE MINISTER – In the White Paper’s focus, there’s firstly a geostrategic focus that identifies the security of the African continent as the top priority. There’s also a need to boost intelligence, transport and refuelling capabilities.
We’ll have a more compact, more coherent army capable of being the first on the ground and of taking on missions the political authorities entrust it with, whether it be to guarantee our own security or to shoulder our international responsibilities.
Q. – Improving intelligence means acquiring drones. What type of drones will France acquire, and how will she procure them?
THE MINISTER – There are several sorts of drones. The essential thing for us, for the time being, is observation UAVs – aircraft capable of flying for long periods, constantly providing intelligence and doing so discreetly.
In Mali, we depend on the Americans’ willingness to provide us with intelligence from their own UAVs. There’s an immediate need for our own security, and it can be resolved only by purchasing “off-the-shelf” UAVs from the United States or Israel.
The discussions are at a more advanced stage with the United States, but we’re not ruling out Israel. The military estimates bill provides for the purchase of 12 of those UAVs. However, this decision doesn’t obviate the need to have new-generation UAVs in the future.
At the Paris Air Show, EADS, Dassault and Finmeccanica announced their intention to work together. The Defence Ministry, its European partners and the manufacturers could create a road map together for developing a European UAV for the period 2020-2025.
Q. – Is the acquisition of combat drones envisaged?
THE MINISTER – Combat drones are for later. The question that arises is what comes after fighter aircraft, and it will involve both unmanned and manned aircraft.
At the moment we’re in the preliminary stages; discussions are under way between BAE and Dassault, which, at the request of the French and British governments, are considering a joint use scenario for the future, by 2030.
Q. – You went to Qatar last week. Did the negotiations on the Rafale make any progress?
THE MINISTER – The discussions are continuing with all the partners. None of the export prospects we’re talking about today have been closed, be they Qatar, India, the [United Arab] Emirates, Malaysia or Brazil.
My own role isn’t to negotiate prices, it’s to establish the political and strategic conditions enabling the manufacturer to be in the best possible position to talk. That’s what I did with President Hollande in Qatar./.