A Hasty Withdrawal
France’s decision to withdraw its troops ahead of the schedule set by NATO forces can have a devastating impact on an already complicated and critical timeline.
President Nicholas Sarkozy’s decision for an accelerated withdrawal of French combat troops from Afghanistan by 2013, a year ahead of schedule, came as a surprise and disappointment to the US and its other NATO allies. It was not that the French had any major role in providing security in Afghanistan, with their relatively small contingent of 3600 troops, but essentially because of its symbolic value. Clearly, the announcement was a setback to the solidarity and synergy that Washington was expecting from its allies.
More so it comes especially at a time when the US is desperately seek- ing a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and working towards a relatively orderly withdrawal and smooth transition after drastically trimming its more ambitious goals of nationbuilding. The fears are that the French decision for early withdrawal would give a boost to the Taliban-led insurgency and could trigger a domino effect with other NATO allies following suit, leaving the US all to itself. France was, however, not the first among the NATO countries to withdraw as Canada and Netherlands had already withdrawn their forces in 2010/11 for their own or similar reasons.
But the difference is that France is a key military European power and a leading NATO country. Besides, it has been providing valuable air support and intelligence to allied forces. It is also ironic that Sarkozy who had unabashedly pursued a policy of close alignment with Washington, as opposed to that of his predecessor, had to change course due to compelling domestic and international factors.
Washington, of course, will make serious diplomatic efforts that the remaining ISAF countries stay on until 2014, as originally planned. It will probably also insist that France keeps its remaining 2600 combat forces until the end of 2013 to give a cushion
for Afghan forces to assume security duties and reduce the risk of military gains being compromised. In view of US Presidential elections, it is also not possible for the US to alter its draw down plan in which 33,000 troops will be returning home from the Afghan theatre. While the US draws down its troops it is hoping that negotiations with the Taliban will move forward. President Obama in his State of the Union address was upbeat about the military situation in Afghanistan and stated that the Taliban momentum had been broken. This may be an optimistic assessment and more of a political statement, as a recent leaked NATO report indicates that there is a widespread belief that the Taliban seemed to be poised to recapture territory when NATO forces leave.
What then could be the rationale for President Sarkozy to have made an announcement for an early withdrawal?
For the French, like the rest of NATO, the problem has been that the Afghan war had no clear objectives apart from defeating and destroying Al Qaeda. In their somewhat belated assessment, the French had come to the conclusion that a war with such undefined objectives can never accomplish its mission and end smoothly. Some analysts have argued that the initial fault lies with the US for having declared a definite timetable for complete withdrawal of combat forces by 2014. By then Afghan forces are unlikely to be fully trained and equipped to take on security responsibilities, thus allowing the Taliban to make a comeback.
Early withdrawal by France is essentially linked with domestic politics. With presidential elections around the corner and the Conservative party of President Sarkozy under pressure, it makes good politics for him to withdraw from an unpopular war. The French are truly weary of the Afghan conflict and have no stomach for accepting any additional casualties. The recent killing of four French troops by a disgruntled Afghan soldier at a base located in the eastern province of Kapisa, acted as a catalyst in the hasty decision for withdrawal. The other important factor is that Europe is facing a serious financial crisis and the French economy is considered vulnerable. The government has undertaken several austerity measures and finds it difficult to share the burden of the Afghanistan conflict that seemingly has an uncertain future.
With the weakening of the Al Qaeda, France, along with US and NATO countries, feels confident that their homeland security has been largely taken care of and Afghan forces with foreign support can resist the Taliban onslaught.
No doubt, the Afghan army to an extent is capable of putting up a good fight against insurgents. Where they are still lacking is in terms of planning and conducting major counterinsurgency operations on their own. The Afghan army is predominantly composed of Tajiks, but Pashtuns who constitute 40 % of the population are disproportionately under-represented. In order to be a professional army, it has to gel as a national institution with loyalties rising above ethnic and tribal bonds. A demographically more balanced army structure should be in the best interest of Afghanistan.
The Afghan Army also needs foreign assistance for its training institutions. They are not sufficiently trained and equipped to stand on their own. Training of army personnel can only be expedited up to a point. There are no quick fixes and the Afghan leadership realizes it. In the post-withdrawal phase, Washington along with some other NATO countries will continue to provide training to military personnel and assist in planning the conduct of special operations in Afghanistan. The French government too will retain its training contingent after its combat forces have withdrawn to contribute in the training of the Afghan security forces.
Limited American presence in Afghanistan would be necessary for a few years to preserve the government in power in the post-withdrawal scenario. This view is shared by NATO countries and would be in the interest of France as well. Although in Iraq, the requirement was just the opposite. American withdrawal from Iraq became a pre-condition for the government’s survival
It is obvious that without substantial foreign assistance, Afghanistan will not be in a position to financially support a two and half or three millionplus army as the present government is planning. The question arises, what for do the Afghans need such a large military force? A more effective policy would be to focus on police and paramilitary forces for their future security needs. And, above all, divert most of the indigenous and foreign resources to development and civilian projects.
Moreover, after a decade of involvement in Afghanistan, the French leadership realizes that there is no potential solution other than a negotiated political settlement between the US and Taliban and other major militant groups. As this process seems to be moving forward, albeit slowly, with the US establishing direct contacts with the Taliban in Qatar, emphasis should now shift toward diplomatic and political engagement.