President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to confirm today that he will send more French troops to eastern Afghanistan, freeing US troops to reinforce hard-pressed Canadian forces in Kandahar, scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
But failure by the French government to send the expected number of troops to Afghanistan is likely to lead to revision of Nato operational plans against the Taliban, senior military sources said yesterday. Military planners had been working on the theory that a French force of 1,000 to 1,200 would be sent to fight in the war, including special forces, to boost their current deployment of 1,400. President Sarkozy has said the West "cannot afford to lose" the war against the Taliban.
But if the number of French troops sent is significantly lower, it would not be possible for the Americans' 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to be transferred to Kandahar and fight alongside the Canadian forces. This, in turn, will have a knock-on effect on the British who may have to send a greater proportion of troops to Kandahar instead of concentrating on Helmand.
Canada has threatened to pull its 2,500 combat troops out of Kandahar next February if Nato does not meet its demand for another 1,000 combat troops for the southern region.
Part of the UK contingent now deployed in Helmand, the 16th Air Assault Brigade, has already been earmarked to be the reserve force in Kandahar and sending more there would have consequences for missions being planned in Helmand this summer and autumn, according to defence sources.
Any shortfall in French numbers may also affect the programme for training and mentoring the Afghan security forces, some of which have been tainted by corruption and inefficiency. US Marines were supposed to be taking on this task, but they may haveto be switched instead to frontline duties.
One defence official said: "Obviously this uncertainty does not help the planning process and it would be very helpful to have a clearer idea of what the French will want to do. Hopefully this will be hammered out at the summit.
" The other fear is that if the French do not send a realistic number of troops it will send a negative signal to other Nato countries we are encouraging to take up their share of the Afghan operation."
President Sarkozy, who has moved his country closer to Washington, caused uproar in Paris by announcing the reinforcement in French troops during a state visit to Britain last week. The government, which agreed to a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan this week, now faces its first no-confidence vote next Tuesday.
Gordon Brown called yesterday for more burden sharing within Nato on Afghanistan and Russia has indicated that it will allow its southern border to be used to ferry non-military supplies to Afghanistan. President Bush, whose country has a total of 31,000 troops in Afghanistan, expressed confidence yesterday that the required additional troops would be forthcoming.