J.L. Krueger, to whose blog I was alerted by Ghosts of Alexander, has recently, not long after the August 18 incident, posted on the ambush in which 10 French paratroopers were killed (in the Uzbeen valley, in Kapisa province). Krueger makes the point that for the guerrillas to achieve the tactical surprise they did was clearly a case of mistakes made by the French. He cites rumours that some of the French were not carrying weapons, and that some didn't have their helmets or even their bulletproof vests on. And he says that the guerrillas monitor patrols and that is how they knew the French were vulnerable.
From my reading of the French press, the picture is a lot worse than even that.
1. A French soldier who was there on a patrol in the Uzbeen valley after the August 18 ambush, recalls this in le nouvel Observateur (the August 28/September 3 issue; not my only source for all I'm writing of below):
"Ils avaient mis des guetteurs partout. Je n'ai pas compris à ce moment-là."
The omnipresence of spotters in the insurgency-struck areas is something I myself knew of. Here in my armschair. By the way I've even written about it, back in 2007. That's a bad score on sharing vital information for all the coalition.
2. The interpreter who would have gone with the French troops on the patrol to the Uzbeen valley on August 18, just vanished, two hours before departure. The patrol went forward anyway.* (correction below)
3. There was no specific aerial reconnaissance done on the area before the patrol went out. Not even after the interpreter was gone.
4. The disappearance of the interpreter is just a symptom of a bigger problem. The guerrillas knew days in advance of the patrol. They stashed a lot of ammo at the ambush site.5. Some French officers now openly talk of how badly provisioned the French fighting force is, in general, in Afghanistan. Not enough ammunition provided to soldiers, green-coloured vehicles that don't give good camouflage, AMX-10s the only suitably armoured asset which, however, can't cross the narrow streets of villages, UAVs not available etc.
6. The French paratroopers went into the Afghanistan mission thinking they are much better than the Americans. They were thinking things like this: we are going to be closer to the population than others - we are traditionally much better at this; the Americans, they never leave the cover of armour, unlike we; we are going for the hearts and minds - unlike the Americans who just want to fight enemies. And so on. My simple message: whoever taught these soldiers that, now, in 2008, is an idiot. This is not a beauty contest - even if you wish to make it one, the conditions on the ground won't allow you to do that. Besides, hearts and minds is something of which I'm tired of hearing journalists say it's what their country does, contrary to the others in the coalition. Do the homework and use common sense.
Tellingly, the reporter of the already cited le nouvel Observateur, Florence Aubenas, is happy to recite jokes such as this: what's the difference between American and Soviet soldiers? The salary.
Ironically, the paratroopers were also proud, at the same time, of having the chance to do some fighting, which they have missed in some of the latter wars France took part in, and for which they were jealous of other units in the armed forces.
7. Back to the ambush itself. Mortars were not set up to provide optimal support to the dismounted patrol that ran into the ambush uphill from where they left their vehicles behind.
8. CAS from U.S. aircraft couldn't come for a long time because the combatants were too close to each other for comfortably pounding the mountain.
9. There's something at the end of the Observateur's article, which I still need to mention. The excerpt of the original in French included here. Get a dictionary if you have trouble understanding the gist of it, though it's not that difficult. The necessary background is that there was a small village near where the patrol's vehicles were parked, and away from the ambush site uphill. Here's an excerpt first from a map on page 41 of le nouvel Observateur:
"En représailles le dernier hameau traversé par la colonne est détruit, selon des témoignages militaires, par 4 missiles Milan tirés par les paras français. Deux autres hameaux sont détruits lors d'un raid aérien le lendemain."
On page 44 this is repeated as part of the article itself:
"Quatre missiles Milan ont été tirés contre le village, deux autres hameaux ont été détruits dans un raid aérien le lendemain. L'agence Pajhwok estime qu'il y aurait plusieurs dizaines de civils morts. "Je ne suis pas certain qu'ils étaient directement impliqués dans l'attaque contre les français," dit le colonel Rumi Nelson-Green, porte-parole de la coalition. "Ça na aucune importance. Ils étaient certainement au moins complices." "
This has to be checked. It just strikes me as odd that someone speaking for the coalition would say something like that, at a time when the collateral damage of airstrikes elsewhere causes such embarrassment. I specifically wonder if the question to which Nelson-Green said this was about the Pajhwok report of casualties. I also find it weird that Aubenas, a reporter who had earlier quoted a joke likening U.S. soldiers to Soviet soldiers, in an approving context, should have no particularly critical comments when citing this. Communicating things like that in this way just fits Aubenas' doomy-gloomy article too well, in a cursory way, but makes it incoherent at a deeper level. So, this is what I'll do. I don't believe this unless somebody sends me the press briefing's transcript, where this was said, or if this is verified from another source.
For those who wonder if doing the thing that was described in the quote above is not right from a humanitarian point of view, but right from a counterinsurgency point of view (mind you, I don't know if this did happen indeed), I have this article to link to (for some substantial reading), and I'll just say you'd be wrong to think that way. This sort of thing is bad in all sorts of ways. And, just to put this into perspective: It's not the coalition's habit to handle potentially similar incidents in a casual way. When Polish soldiers did something similar, they were later arrested and now they are facing trial at a military court in Poznań.
* My mistake above: two interpreters have gone missing, not one. And it happened several hours before departure.