The South Asia Channel

Retreat, discontent, and misunderstanding: France in Afghanistan

The last two days have been murderous for the French contingent in Afghanistan; four paratroopers were killed in a suicide attack in the Surobi district, while a Special Forces soldier was killed during operations in the Alasay Valley, in the province of Kapisa. The timing of these incidents was hardly accidental: The goal was to ...

REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images
REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

The last two days have been murderous for the French contingent in Afghanistan; four paratroopers were killed in a suicide attack in the Surobi district, while a Special Forces soldier was killed during operations in the Alasay Valley, in the province of Kapisa.

The timing of these incidents was hardly accidental: The goal was to strike France and its army during the commemoration of the national and military holiday that is the "14 Juillet" known as Bastille Day in the Anglophone world. But these deaths also illustrate the growing engagement of French units in Afghanistan in more intense kinetic operations. The reconquest of Kapisa, a particularly sensitive region situated on a strategic axis and marked by 30 years of war, has been a particularly costly and difficult task, one that has required French forces to put into practice their tactical knowledge and understanding of "contre-insurrection" or what Americans call COIN.

These incidents also took place as French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced the timetable for the French withdrawal from Afghanistan, following the declaration from American president Barack Obama concerning the pullout of American forces from the country. This combined with the growing number of French casualties, and public confusion over a less-than-clear strategy, have left the impression that France’s government, public and press no longer support the engagement of French soldiers in Afghanistan. This ostensible lack of support, contrasted with the jubilation exhibited by the French press following the recent liberation of two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan since late 2009, has left many soldiers with a bitter taste in their mouths. 

The confluence of circumstances has not only provoked real discontent among France’s soldiers, but it has also brought into focus two partially linked trends — public indifference towards the soldiers and their ongoing struggle, and the gulf between the operations conducted daily in Afghanistan and Paris’ political objectives. 

On the first point, it must be noted that French public opinion broadly rejects France’s engagement in Afghanistan. This stems from a perception concerning France’s national interests in the country; France’s political leadership has been unable to explain the presence of French soldiers in Afghanistan, relying instead on traditional arguments about « the glory of our military » or vilification of the Taliban. But the incomprehension surrounding the goals of the war is not the only factor behind this indifference. Instead, it can be explained by the fact that France no longer remembers the purpose of its army.

In effect, to be proud of its army, France would have to understand that it is useful, even vital. However, the lack of direct military threat to France has made the army appear less and less necessary, instead making it a budget line to be adjusted as needed.

This feeling and  lack of understanding is fed by the lack of strategic clarity in Afghanistan, which gives many the impression that the engagement there has more to do with domestic politics (in terms of France’s upcoming presidential elections) and diplomacy (as it relates to France’s reintegration into NATO’s command and growing military and political alignment with the United States).

Meanwhile, without clear political objectives, French soldiers have taken to defining their own mission goals, as we see more and more that the military means deployed in Afghanistan are insufficient to accomplish the troops’ stated goal – to disrupt the Taliban. The incoherence between NATO and France’s stated objectives and the means deployed provides more ammunition for those who argue for greater forces, as well as those who argue for a pullout. In the context of the ongoing operations in Libya, the first option is not possible. The withdrawal announced by President Sarkozy thus appears as a strategic error, if the goal is to disrupt the Taliban. Instead, it is the first step (a risky one, I might add) in order to accomplish internal political objectives, as presidential elections loom next year. Indeed, this announcement has triggered competing discourses about the withdrawal timetable on the part of other presidential candidates, each promising to shorten French presence in Afghanistan.

Yet it is still the responsibility of the political decision-maker to ensure that the strength and morale of French forces is not weakened. It is thus imperative to explain to them to France’s military the political objectives and the expectations of their civilian masters, and not just to worry about their day-to-day security until it is time to come home. In reality, the security and protection of the force will never be ideal, unless it remains inactive…or leaves.

Stéphane Taillat is a lecturer and Research Fellow in International Relations and Strategy at the St-Cyr Military Academy, and a Reserve Officer in the French Army. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from French by Andrew Lebovich.

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