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.
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.