By PETER SPIEGEL
PARIS—French Defense Minister Hervé Morin defended his country’s decision to send only 80 additional military trainers to Afghanistan, saying France has increased its presence by 1,300 soldiers in less than two years.
Speaking after meetings here with his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mr. Morin said Paris had sent hundreds of additional troops—which brought France’s presence to about 3,700—at a time “no other European country was increasing their strength” in Afghanistan.
“We have made an enormous effort since July 2008,” Mr. Morin said.
The French decision, announced last week at a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers, came in response to the Obama administration’s call in December for allies to quickly send more troops to augment the 30,000 committed by the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s surge.
France was the last major ally to announce its commitment, and the 80 trainers were far fewer than the U.S. had anticipated. The French announcement follows a similarly lower-than-expected move from another major troop supplier, Germany, which will add 850 troops.
The war remains unpopular in both countries, and the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces important regional elections next month, which likely played a role in Mr. Sarkozy’s decision to make only a token increase, analysts said.
Despite the French decision and last month’s announcement by Germany that it would contribute 850 additional troops, also below U.S. expectations, other commitments have exceeded expectations.
Mr. Gates refrained from criticism during a news conference with Mr. Morin.
Instead, he praised the French effort in Afghanistan, saying it was “important to maintain some perspective” in light of France’s increase in troop strength since 2008.
“Since this conflict began, thousands of French troops have served courageously alongside American forces and other members of the coalition, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Mr. Gates said.
The two also discussed a dispute over a French move to sell an amphibious assault ship to Russia. Paris said Monday that it had agreed to the sale of a Mistral-class warship to Russia. Eastern European NATO allies have criticized the deal and the U.S. has weighed in on their behalf.