US military chief nominee salutes French role

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The nominee to be the next chief of the US military on Tuesday hailed France's cooperation in Afghanistan as he downplayed charges that NATO allies needed to do more in the war zone.

General Martin Dempsey told his Senate confirmation hearing that he had taken part Monday evening in a ceremony where France's ambassador to the United States decorated six US Special Forces soldiers for assistance in Afghanistan.

"They are serving very bravely and courageously with us in Afghanistan," Dempsey, now the Army chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee as it considered his nomination to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The French were very proud to note that they have a French battalion under our command, without caveat, in Afghanistan. And I think we should not, in the midst of our current budget challenges, undervalue our relationships overseas," he said.

Dempsey was responding to Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, who challenged the nominee's support for retaining three combat brigades in Europe -- mostly in Germany -- instead of reducing the level to two.

Sessions noted that no NATO ally came close to the military spending of the United States, which devotes more than four percent of its Gross Domestic Product -- some $700 billion last year -- on its military.

"I think we've got to ask ourselves can we continue to maintain that kind of forward deployment of brigades when we were supposed to be reducing to two," Sessions said.

France stations some 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, where the United States deploys some 100,000. Both countries plan to reduce troop levels amid growing public weariness over the war launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

At the French embassy, Ambassador Francois Delattre awarded the six US soldiers with the prestigious Croix de la Valeur Militaire, or Cross of Military Valor.

"They fought at the risk of their own lives to assist French soldiers, their brothers in arms, who experienced a barrage of fire from the enemy," Delattre said, according to a US Defense Department statement.

The US military declined to offer details about the incident, citing operational security, but said that troops involved were "pinned down for hours" and "fought on despite severe injuries."

© 2011 AFP

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