RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
2008 is shaping up to be Afghanistan's deadliest year since the U.S.-led invasion back in 2001, and it's getting worse. This morning, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in Kabul to show support for his military after 10 French soldiers were killed. It is the single worst loss in ground combat for NATO forces since the Afghan war began. The French soldiers were ambushed yesterday as they climbed a mountain pass outside Kabul. And that attack followed three successive attacks on a large American military base in southeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The BBC's Alastair Leithead is in Kabul, and joins us now to talk about this. Good morning.
Mr. ALASTAIR LEITHEAD (Journalist, BBC): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Tell us first what happened exactly in the attack on the French soldiers. Now, one thing, they were elite paratroopers. Why were they on foot?
Mr. LEITHEAD: Well, they'd moved through vehicles in an area called Sarobi, which is east of the capital, Kabul. They had gone into an area which was very steep, very rocky mountain terrain, and they'd sent a number of troops on foot ahead to see what the ground was like, to see whether they could proceed any further with their vehicles. And it was at that point that they came under attack, they were ambushed. Nine of the French troops were killed in the first few minutes of the engagement. One died later when his vehicle overturned. But then from that point on, reinforcements were sent in, obviously medical evacuation had to be organized, and the battle went on for around 24 hours.
MONTAGNE: And 21 more wounded.
Mr. LEITHEAD: That's right. And, of course, President Sarkozy, who arrived very early in the morning in Kabul, went to see them, as well as paying his last respects to those who'd been killed. He said that the forces are essential in Afghanistan, that France is committed to the country because he said we play a part in the freedom of the world.
MONTAGNE: President Sarkozy has just sent 700 more troops into Afghanistan. Even though the war is not especially popular in France, sending troops in wasn't especially popular, he was sounding, then, today like he has no intention of pulling any of them out?
Mr. LEITHEAD: Oh, very much. I mean, that, I think, is the purpose of his mission. He came with both his defense and foreign ministers. The decision was made to deploy troops into a more dangerous area. Sarobi, this area close to Kabul, isn't really one of those most dangerous areas. So the risks are high for French forces, as indeed they are for all international troops where there's been a huge increase in the number of incidents this summer.
MONTAGNE: You know, one of the most worrisome aspects to this attack is not only the large number of militants who attacked, but how close it was Kabul -30 miles, approximately, outside the city.
Mr. LEITHEAD: That's right. It was very close, and there have been a number of incidents on the main highway that runs around Afghanistan very close to the city gates of Kabul. Last week, three international female aid workers were killed - again, ambushed by insurgents. There have been attacks, roadside bombs on that road, trucks have been burned, those providing supplies - fuel supplies, particularly for the international forces. It doesn't take many insurgents to launch these kinds of attacks, but their impact in terms of the paranoia of both Afghans and internationals in Kabul is great. It's the nature of an insurgency, the way that the insurgency is perceived and this feeling that the areas closer to Kabul are certainly more dangerous than they were a year ago.
MONTAGNE: Taken together, the attacks on the American military base - which is near the Pakistan border - and these attacks on the French soldiers, how much has this ratcheted up the violence there in Afghanistan?
Mr. LEITHEAD: Well, I think, certainly, it's been a very bad few days for NATO forces here. That attack against the American base in Khost was a brazen attack - I mean, 30 insurgents trying to storm a very large American base. And again, today we've been hearing reports of an attack in Khost town center, a rocket or a suicide bomb. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of clashes between international forces, particularly U.S. troops in the east of Afghanistan this summer, compared to last. The indications are that the border with Pakistan is where these fighters are moving across from. And obviously there's more of this summer still to come.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for talking with us.
Mr. LEITHEAD: Thanks very much.
MONTAGNE: The BBC's Alastair Leithead, talking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan.
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