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.

Southasia - - Contents - By Talat Ma­sood

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.

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