Center for Strategic Decision Research


French Military Strategy Against Terrorism: Protection, Prevention and Action

Lieutenant General Richard Wolsztynski
Vice Chief of Defense Staff of France

Our theme this year is particularly important to all of us. Because my country had previously suffered many terrorist actions, the 1994 French White Paper on Defense took into account the terrorist threat. The White Paper stated, "Terrorist action probably is the main non-military threat to national security...Like any other modern democracy, France is particularly exposed-even more than some other nations-given her international status and responsibilities." 

But the level of violence and premeditation involved in the September 11 attacks gave us proof that the U.S. was even more threatened by the terrorist plague than France. However, though we did not consider that such attacks could take place in France, we still have integrated dealing with the terrorist threat in our new strategy. 

In the past, we fought terrorism using conventional methods that significantly improved over the years. But the White Paper detailed using three major strategic military principles, along with nuclear deterrence, that are the backbone of our military strategy: protection, prevention, and action. I will now try to explain what we mean by these principles, the lessons we have drawn from the new form of anti-terrorist fighting, and the possible eventualities. 


As soon as a threat arises, and if civil assets prove insufficient to cope with it, the armed forces must intervene to protect the population, the national territory, and national interests. After the September 11 attacks, France affirmed her full solidarity with the United States. We also decided, along with several other allied nations, to take part in the American fight against terrorism while taking a series of protective measures in our own countries adapted to this new type of threat. 

As they are more or less the same in all countries, I will not describe in detail the security measures we adopted in the field of civil aviation. But, in addition to air safety measures, measures against hijackers have been strengthened and the protection of sensitive sites has been reinforced. The radioactive waste-reprocessing plant at La Hague in Normandy is now protected by air defense missiles. Measures have also been implemented to protect drinking water supply circuits and the armed forces are helping to protect individuals and sensitive sites in close cooperation with services in charge of civilian security. 

While these measures are significant, people and sites can be protected only when we have a clear vision of the threat against them. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain information about terrorism and organizations such as Al-Qaeda and be prepared to react rapidly. So prevention is very important. 


Prevention is an essential aspect of our strategy. It consists of being able, in any type of situation, to detect a threat rapidly, to gather relevant information, and to be capable of reacting immediately, even with limited assets. 

In the case of the September 11 attacks, there were no prevention strategies and the attacks came as a total surprise. In reaction to the events, France implemented preventive measures, and immediately offered her allies access to her human and technical intelligence. As early as September 27, we re-deployed our intelligence assets mostly to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean areas. Then, to improve cooperation between our staffs and to explain and implement the military options proposed by France, we sent-with the approval of General Tommy Franks-a liaison and planning team to USCENTCOM in Tampa. 

We also started flying reconnaissance missions in the theater of operations in mid-October. This allowed us to have better knowledge of the tactical situation in Afghanistan and its surroundings and to complete the information obtained by the American services. Our ships, which had been put on alert and deployed in the Indian Ocean, contributed to maritime security intelligence collecting along with the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy. I think that all the information we provided was appreciated. 

Prevention requires having rapid reaction capabilities. As operations were being conducted in Central Asia, France waged an action aimed at establishing strong points close to the theater of operations and at re-deploying combat assets in the area. France, as part of our strategy, has pre-positioned forces in various parts of the world that take on this work. For obvious historical reasons, most of these forces are in Africa and in our overseas territories. For instance, we are able to use important port and airfield facilities thanks to our agreements with the Republic of Djibouti. 

Because of the distance between France and the Afghan theater, it was necessary to obtain overflight and landing authorizations from several friendly countries. As part of prevention, and prior to any military action, cooperation between our armed forces and national diplomatic networks is essential. 

A final part of prevention is being able to avoid the emergence of a new threat. In this regard, I would like to emphasize how important it is to create modernized, loyal Afghan forces. This should be our priority in all actions we undertake in Afghanistan. From our experience in the Balkans and in Africa, we have learned that we must give responsibility to the local forces. I believe it is most important to create a true national Afghan army as soon as possible and to reconstruct the country. This will reduce as much as possible the likelihood that Afghan youth will become involved in violence and terrorism. 

Despite its many strengths, prevention does not resolve all problems, and we can still get caught by surprise, as we did on September 11. If prevention fails, we must resort to direct military action. If a fire is started, we need firefighters to put it out. 


Though what the French forces do may not compare with what the American forces can do, French forces have conducted and are still conducting several significant Enduring Freedom operations. Every time we received a request from our American friends, we answered in the affirmative. However, our offers were not always accepted, since the U.S. had more than sufficient assets to conduct the initial phase of the action and wished to do so on its own. 

This seems perfectly natural to me. It is the U.S. that was so badly struck and it is the U.S. that has been designated by bin Laden as the main enemy. European nations seem to be lower on his list. Therefore, we fully understand why American civil and military authorities wanted to use mostly national assets, thus keeping full control of the operations. 

Naval Operations. After our reconnaissance assets were engaged and our preventive force deployed, French military action was carried out in several phases and in various areas. The most visible action was probably the deployment of our naval air group. The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left Toulon on 25 November 2001, and her fighters started flying over Afghanistan on December 22. They have been flying in the area ever since. As President Bush recently indicated, one quarter of the French Navy is now engaged in the operation. 

Mazar e Sharif. In answer to a request from CENTCOM and in spite of numerous difficulties, we also deployed at a very early stage a 250-person infantry detachment to secure the perimeter of the airfield at Mazar e Sharif. The mission of this detachment was to ensure the security of the units repairing the runway. Along with Allied soldiers, our troops also facilitated the deployment of the Jordanian field hospital personnel. After successfully carrying out its mission, our infantry element in Mazar e Sharif returned home at the end of January 2002. 

Military Strong Points. The deployment of part of our advance party in Mazar e Sharif was made possible by the U.S. Air Force. The bulk of our forces was flown in by French Air Force transport aircraft deployed from our strong point in Douchambé, Tajikistan. From Douchambé, we also rapidly deployed the French elements of the international force in Kabul. We sent to the ISAF over 500 men, who started deploying at the beginning of January. They are equipped with light armored vehicles and help in securing the Afghan capital and the roads leading to the northeastern part of the country. I cannot overemphasize the importance-and the difficulty-of setting up strong points near a theater of operations as distant as Afghanistan. 

Cooperative Efforts. Thanks to effective cooperation between the U.S. and French forces, our last military elements were finally deployed in the multinational base at Manas, Khirgizistan. The deployment of six Mirage 2000s and two tankers contributed in two ways: first to Operation Enduring Freedom and then to the security of ISAF in Kabul. Their late arrival was due to the difficulty of deploying combat aircraft so far away, and in a sovereign country with an obsolete aeronautical infrastructure and installations. The fact that our air force pilots started flying combat missions as part of Operation Anaconda the day following their arrival shows the importance of their presence. Along with our navy pilots, who operate from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, our air force pilots fly every day in the Afghan skies in support of Allied troops on the ground. 

Today, almost 5,000 French soldiers are directly engaged in Enduring Freedom operations and are contributing to restoring peace in Afghanistan. 


The international fight against terrorism that has been conducted since September 11 is a major action liable to cause a major change in our defense and security strategy. In France as in all Allied countries, we are thinking about the lessons to be learned from this event. 

The first lesson is that in crisis management as in the fight against terrorism, our strategy must be global and must not be limited to a military response. Our democracies must use all available assets, be they diplomatic, economic, legal, or otherwise. 

In the strategic field, the main question now concerns the line between prevention and action, i.e., preemptive action. Our culture as well as international law forbid us to destroy any installation considered to be dangerous before our forces, our assets, or our territory have been deliberately attacked. This follows the principle of legitimate self-defense. However, we realize that in our fight against terrorism, we cannot allow the development of arsenals or weapons of mass destruction that could possibly be used later by terrorists. 

I believe it is our duty to offer our political leaders options that allow us to neutralize in a preemptive way an enemy who represents a recognized threat to our interests. But I cannot go any further on this subject. It is the exclusive responsibility of our national political authorities to decide whether or not they want to head in this direction. 

Another major concern in the fight against terrorism is that of the validity and adaptability of our international organizations. Whether we talk of the essential and decisive role of the U.N., the reactivity of the European Union, or the possible contribution of NATO, our post-September 11 world shows how necessary it is to keep adapting these organizations to improve their cooperation and to strengthen their intervention capability. 


The first objective of the operation in Afghanistan was to prevent that country from becoming a refuge for terrorists. This objective was met with the departure of the Taliban regime. The role of the American forces was decisive. There were casualties among their best soldiers and they deserve our gratitude. 

The work must now be finished by capturing those responsible for the September 11 attacks and by reducing as much as possible the nuisance capability of the Al-Qaeda network. The concern involves the entire coalition, and we all know how difficult it is. We need to manage the situation cautiously so that we do not run the risk of further deteriorating Afghanistan's already precarious stability. 

To this end, operations are being extended into other geographic areas. Most of the operations conducted in Afghanistan have reached their objectives and a new phase has now started in other parts of the world that might become refuges for Islamic terrorists. We are trying to localize terrorists and prevent those who fled Afghanistan from going back. 

In this spirit, the United States is conducting operations in support of certain governments, including in the Philippines, in Georgia, and in Yemen. The Horn of Africa also seems to be an area of major interest for the coalition and for France in particular. International action has so far concentrated on maritime interdiction operations (MIOs) that follow months of intelligence gathering and surveillance activities. 


I do not want to conclude without mentioning two important crises whose evolution could significantly affect global peace and security. 

The first, and by far the most preoccupying, is the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. In April of 2002, it reached a level of tension and violence close to a state of war. We Europeans are greatly concerned about this situation and are prepared to study all possibilities for an end to the crisis that would be acceptable to all parties involved. The chosen solution should be implemented under the aegis of the United Nations. 

The second crisis is the one in Iraq. Through our close relations with many Arab countries, we know how sensitive this issue is. Let us face it: The future of the international coalition against terrorism would be jeopardized by an excessive use of force in Iraq. We must take into account the numerous warnings that have been made if we do not want to replace the existing precarious Middle East peace with an overall regional flare-up. 

We all know the essential role being played by the international coalition against terrorism. The coalition has held together so far, but, given its heterogeneity, we must be very careful to keep it that way. It is indispensable if we want to keep fighting terrorism over the months to come. 


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