France in Afghanistan: a wounded mission

Patrice de Beer
9 September 2008

France is the latest western country to find itself bogged down in the Afghan quagmire. It has paid a heavy price for its engagement with the death of ten of its elite soldiers killed in ambush east of Kabul on 18 August 2008 by the Islamist fundamentalist Taliban. France had previously had only a limited role in the Afghan conflict, training Afghan soldiers or flying reconnaissance missions. This changed with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

Also in openDemocracy on the war in Afghanistan:

Antonio Giustozzi, "The resurgence of the neo-Taliban" (14 December 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan in an amorphous war" (19 June 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)

Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure" (11 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (26 August 2008)

The former president Jacques Chirac - who had agreed to send troops there after 9/11 - had all but lost hope in the American-led war in 2006. During the presidential campaign of 2007, the then candidate (now president) Nicolas Sarkozy had declared that "a long-term presence of French troops in this part of the world does not seem decisive to me (...) There was a time when, in order to help Mr. Karzai's government, choices had to be made and the president (Chirac) decided to repatriate our special forces and some other units. This is a policy I will follow".

Yet Sarkozy reversed his stand after being elected. He bowed to President Bush's call for more troops and announced that the French forces in Afghanistan would jump to 3,000 - making them the fourth largest contingent in the coalition - and would join the fight against the Taliban. On 20 August - in the wake of the worst casualties suffered by French soldiers in a single incident since fifty-eight were killed by suicide-bombers in Beirut in 1983 - he justified his decision: "Why are we there? Because it is where a large part of the world's freedom is being decided. This is the place where terrorism is being fought. We are not there to fight against the Afghans but with them, not to leave them on their own to fight the dark forces of barbarity".

The change

French public opinion was never opposed in principle to sending troops overseas. They always clearly understood that there was no such thing as a war without casualties; the American obsession with body-bags was never there. So the decision to deploy troops in Afghanistan to ferret out al-Qaida - taken jointly by then socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and conservative president Jacques Chirac - was supported by a national consensus. (A wild rumour was even circulated that French special forces once had Osama bin Laden in their line of sight but that the US command had ordered them not to shoot.)

Even in the period of France's opposition to George W Bush's and Tony Blair's war in Iraq, the French presence in Afghanistan was never questioned, even if the efficiency of the United States-led coalition's strategy on the ground was. A clear difference was made between an unacceptable war in Iraq and a necessary one against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde
Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:
"Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)
"Sarkozy and God" (6 February 2008)
"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)
"Nicolas Sarkozy, the frenetic leader" (25 July 2008)
"China and the Olympics: a view from France" (7 August 2The atmosphere started to change after Sarkozy's election in May 2007, beginning with a display of friendship towards a United States president whom most French people loathed. This was part of a policy switch towards Atlanticism, likewise anathema for the French since the days of Charles de Gaulle. The new direction was reflected in the decision in June 2008 to rejoin Nato's integrated command after more than forty years and to send new troops to Afghanistan. These measures broke a consensus that had long been at the core of France's foreign policy; the abandonment of France's "splendid isolation" without securing any influence on Washington's foreign policies in return left "Sarko" exposed to attacks by Gaullists on the right and socialists on the left.

Sarkozy, who indeed has an ideological affinity with American neo-conservatives, has gone further in siding with Washington's hard line on Iran; his foreign minister and advocate of "humanitarian intervention", Bernard Kouchner, even (in September 2007) raised the possibility of war with Tehran. His position is that France will be better heard if she pushes for her views inside the tent - thus within Nato's integrated command, for example - than outside; and that solidarity with the United States is not a vain word when the western world is threatened by fundamentalist terrorism. The opponents of Sarkozy's approach recognise the need to combat terrorism and the dire consequences of a western retreat from Afghanistan, but argue that sticking to a failed US strategy that ensures an endless war is not a sound policy.

Olivier Roy, the best French expert on the region, criticises Washington's "ideologised" vision of the war which divides Afghans in classic Manichean fashion into categories of good and evil. A better strategy, he says, would be to try to play the two main Taliban groups against each other in order to isolate the more extremist, al-Qaida-linked ones (as the Americans have done, with a degree of success, in Iraq). Other analysts, such as openDemocracy's columnist Paul Rogers, point out that coalition air-strikes which so often have the effect of killing civilians also harden the heart and minds of Afghans against foreign forces, and are likely to increase support for the Taliban.

This strategic context helps explain why the incident in which ten soldiers died persuaded more French people (a total of 55% in one poll) to express opposition to a French military presence in Afghanistan. This discontent is reflected in the refusal of the defence secretary, Hervé Morin, to use the word "war" when questioned by MPs (one of whom had fought in the French colonial war in Algeria of 1954-62 and had said bluntly that Afghanistan today reminded him of the "pacification" war there).

The mismatch

An allied reason for Nicolas Sarkozy's military activism in Afghanistan is to strengthen what he sees as France's "leadership role in Europe", especially in European defence. France has, he says, "restored a relation of confidence with the American people and leadership, and renovated our relations with the Atlantic alliance (...) Because, when we are among our family, we have more leeway to discuss with the others because they do not question where France stands".

The French president is also explicit about his aim of putting Paris at the political, economic and diplomatic / defence helm of the European Union. France's six-month presidency of the European Union (July-December 2008) is being used to implement that promise; the active role Sarko has adopted in the Russia-Georgia conflict - from brokering the initial ceasefire on 12 August 2008 to flying to Moscow and Tbilisi with senior EU colleagues on 8 September to reinforce the diplomatic process - is but one example (see "A deal, for now", Economist, 9 September 2008).

This could well be a reason for the bungled anti-Taliban operation: to show that the French military, albeit few on the field, were better than the Americans and other allies (especially the British). If voluntarism and boldness can pay in politics, as Nicolas Sarkozy has shown several times, it is another story on the ground. The ten soldiers killed by the Islamic guerrillas - whose gruesome fate was brought even closer to their compatriots after shocking images were published in the magazine Paris Match - did all they could with what they had under instructions from their military and political hierarchy, thousands of miles away (see Katrin Bennhold, "Taliban bring the war home to France", International Herald Tribune, 4 September 2008).

Such outcomers reveal the tensions in the president's strategy. First, France's international influence has been weakened by an economic crisis where her budget deficit approaches the permitted 3% ceiling and her trade deficit is gaping. Second, her armed forces - though still among the strongest in western Europe - were hit in June 2008 by a brutal downsizing.

The closure of redundant bases is necessary, but that saving money is not everything is even more true in the field of defence. The military establishment - which feels more and more estranged from a president with no military experience and, apparently, no personal empathy with it - is worried that slashing over 50,000 personnel out of 300,000 will make it harder to fight overseas; particularly in combat conditions as tough as in Afghanistan, which have nothing to do with ordinary peacekeeping. The elite forces deployed there have complained about obsolete body-armour, lack of helicopters and drones, missing artillery support, and even having to buy some of their own equipment. In addition, the two main training-camps for mountain-warfare, essential for soldiers sent to Afghanistan, are due to close in 2009.

No wonder the French are worried. It is not always easy to be a medium-sized power with international ambitions when you lack the means.


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