In­ter­na­tional Break­ing Prom­ises

France’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from Afghanistan ear­lier than the NATO time­line of 2014 has led to un­easi­ness within the al­lies and height­ened un­pre­dictabil­ity in the Great Game.

Southasia - - Contents - By Lt. Gen. Talat Masood

France plans to with­draw its troops amidst NATO dis­ap­proval

Liv­ing up to his elec­tion prom­ises, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande re­cently an­nounced that France would with­draw all its com­bat forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year; two years ahead of the US and NATO forces’ planned with­drawal. For­mer Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy, re­al­iz­ing the un­pop­u­lar­ity of the war had al­ready de­cided to with­draw French troops, a year in ad­vance, by 2013. But Pres­i­dent Hol­lande de­cided to with­draw even a year ear­lier, by the end of 2012.

France is the fifth largest con­trib­u­tor of mil­i­tary forces in Afghanistan and has about 3300 troops de­ployed mostly near Kabul and in the prov­ince of Kapisa.

Sev­eral fac­tors have con­trib­uted to the French de­ci­sion for an early with­drawal from Afghanistan. First, there is hardly any pub­lic sup­port for the Afghan mis­sion in France. Ap­par­ently, three fourths of the pop­u­la­tion dis­ap­proves France’s in­volve­ment in Afghan- is­tan. Like the rest of Europe, France has come to re­al­ize this is not a war that is winnable by out­side forces and ap­pli­ca­tion of mil­i­tary force alone. At the same time, there is frus­tra­tion that even af­ter ten years of con­flict, ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment with the Tal­iban seems a re­mote pos­si­bil­ity. Adding fuel to the fire, Tal­iban and other mil­i­tant groups continue to launch lethal at­tacks even in sup­pos­edly well-se­cured ar­eas.

Ini­tially, the ob­jec­tives of Western and French en­gage­ment in Afghanistan

went be­yond the use of mil­i­tary force and adopted a broader role of de­moc­ra­tiz­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing Afghanistan. Soon the US and the Western coun­tries re­al­ized that this was not an at­tain­able ob­jec­tive and were forced to dras­ti­cally lower their ex­pec­ta­tions. At present, the main aim of NATO and the US is an or­derly with­drawal from Afghanistan. It is in this con­text that France de­cided in fa­vor of an early with­drawal by two years.

More­over, a to­tal of 83 French sol­diers have been killed since 2001. Re­cently there has been a rise in French ca­su­al­ties, when four of their troops were killed just be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In an ear­lier am­bush, mil­i­tants killed about ten sol­diers in­duc­ing a sense of ur­gency for an ac­cel­er­ated with­drawal. The pri­mary in­ter­est of France now is to en­sure that with­drawal of forces takes place in an or­derly and phased man­ner and that se­cu­rity is main­tained dur­ing this crit­i­cal pe­riod.

Sec­ond, the French econ­omy is go­ing through a dif­fi­cult pe­riod. Cur­rent na­tional debt of France ex­ceeds two tril­lion dol­lars and the rate of em­ploy­ment is more than 10%. More­over, Europe as a whole is fac­ing an eco­nomic re­ces­sion and in such cir­cum­stances France’s pri­or­ity is to look in­wards and re­duce its global com­mit­ments. There is also an im­pres­sion among ISAF coun­tries that credit for any achieve­ment in Afghanistan goes to the Amer­i­cans and there is lit­tle ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the ser­vices ren­dered by France and other ma­jor NATO part­ners.

More­over, the So­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Hol­lande that has re­turned to power af­ter a lapse of sev­eral years is expected to be less as­sertive in world af­fairs than the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of Sarkozy. Dur­ing Sarkozy’s term as Pres­i­dent, France in 2009, af­ter a gap of forty-two years, had made the de­ci­sion to re­turn to NATO mil­i­tary struc­ture. It also re­mained in the fore­front dur­ing the Libyan op­er­a­tion and tried to de­velop a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the US. But even when France was out­side the NATO frame­work it main­tained strong in­for­mal links with its al­lies as was ev­i­dent from the role that its forces played in the Gulf War and later in Kosovo. How­ever, as brought out by France’s Gen­eral Abrial, Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der Trans­for­ma­tion, NATO, in a re­cent in­ter­view that re­main­ing out­side the com­mand struc­ture of NATO meant it had no say in its de­ci­sion mak­ing and faced prob­lems of in­ter­op­er­abil­ity.

Iron­i­cally, the French armed forces are not happy with an early with­drawal. Hav­ing been as­so­ci­ated with ISAF in Afghanistan dur­ing dif­fi­cult times and hav­ing made a place for them­selves they would like to re­tain influence in NATO and that comes only through con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion and ro­bust in­volve­ment.

Clearly, French with­drawal will have an im­pact on the se­cu­rity of the area. They are a highly pro­fes­sional force with a high level of com­bat readi­ness that com­manded the re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion of its ISAF al­lies. Prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion of the French is their ex­per­tise in high al­ti­tude war­fare. As of yet, it is not clear if the spe­cial­ized French Alpine bat­tal­ions will also be with­drawn by the end of 2012.

There are also po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions in France’s au­ton­o­mous de­ci­sion to with­draw. NATO is a mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion whose suc­cess lies in the sol­i­dar­ity and syn­ergy of its mem­bers. It does not au­gur well with 28 mem­bers of NATO when in­di­vid­ual states based on do­mes­tic con­sid­er­a­tions take uni­lat­eral de­ci­sions. Canada and Hol­land have al­ready with- drawn their forces from Afghanistan and now France. Soon Ger­many will be with­draw­ing giv­ing an im­pres­sion of “a race for ex­its in Afghanistan.”

The US would have liked France to re­tain its com­bat mis­sion un­til 2014, and fail­ing to do so has strained re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. Ger­many and Bri­tain would have also pre­ferred that France leave at the same time as the rest of NATO forces. Con­cerns of NATO mem­bers are valid, as it would up­set an agreed, phased and more or­derly with­drawal. The de­ci­sion to with­draw by end 2014 was taken unan­i­mously at the Lis­bon sum­mit in 2010. So, in fact, France would be reneg­ing on its com­mit­ment. But re­al­iz­ing that do­mes­tic com­pul­sions are dic­tat­ing French de­ci­sions on Afghanistan, Wash­ing­ton had no choice but to ac­cept the re­al­ity. It how­ever, ex­pects from France and other al­lies to com­pen­sate their early de­par­ture by con­tribut­ing fi­nan­cially and help­ing in the train­ing of Afghan se­cu­rity forces.

How­ever, the re­deem­ing fea­ture is that France has de­cided it will not par­tic­i­pate in ki­netic en­gage­ment, but will continue to con­trib­ute in train­ing and ad­vice to Afghan se­cu­rity forces on a lim­ited scale af­ter 2012 when its com­bat role ends. Talat Masood is a re­tired Lieu­tenant Gen­eral of the Pak­istan Army Corps of En­gi­neers. Gen­eral Masood holds a Masters in De­fense and Strate­gic Stud­ies and has also served as a vis­it­ing fel­low at the Stim­son Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He was a con­sul­tant for the lead­ing U.S. de­fense man­u­fac­turer, United De­fense Lim­ited Part­ner­ship (UDLP) for five years. He cur­rently writes on na­tional se­cu­rity and weapons pro­lif­er­a­tion and has been cov­er­ing the nu­clear pro­grams of Pak­istan and In­dia.

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