Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Swimming against the Tide

Will Nicolas Sarkozy ditch the French mission in Afghanistan to save his own presidency?

PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS – In the United States, sadly, the death of four soldiers in Afghanistan is the sort of routine event that barely makes the evening news. In France, on the other hand, which has seen far fewer casualties in over 11 years of fighting, the killing of four French military trainers and the wounding of 15 more by an Afghan recruit on Friday, Jan. 20, is not only a tragedy, it is forcing leaders to reevaluate the entire mission. One doesn’t have to be unduly cynical to think that the impending presidential election is something of a factor.

"The French army is in Afghanistan to serve the Afghan people, against terrorism and against the Taliban," a somber and visibly fatigued President Nicolas Sarkozy told diplomats in Paris after morning arrived with the bad news. "The French army isn't in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers fire at them."

While several top French officials initially suggested that a 21-year-old recruit, Abdul Mansour, was a Taliban fighter who had infiltrated Afghan army ranks, other indications suggest that he was a lone wolf or that he -- like millions of Afghans -- suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. A French security source told the conservative daily Le Figaro that Mansour, who was captured after the attack, asserted he had become enraged over the video of U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses.

PARIS – In the United States, sadly, the death of four soldiers in Afghanistan is the sort of routine event that barely makes the evening news. In France, on the other hand, which has seen far fewer casualties in over 11 years of fighting, the killing of four French military trainers and the wounding of 15 more by an Afghan recruit on Friday, Jan. 20, is not only a tragedy, it is forcing leaders to reevaluate the entire mission. One doesn’t have to be unduly cynical to think that the impending presidential election is something of a factor.

"The French army is in Afghanistan to serve the Afghan people, against terrorism and against the Taliban," a somber and visibly fatigued President Nicolas Sarkozy told diplomats in Paris after morning arrived with the bad news. "The French army isn’t in Afghanistan so that Afghan soldiers fire at them."

While several top French officials initially suggested that a 21-year-old recruit, Abdul Mansour, was a Taliban fighter who had infiltrated Afghan army ranks, other indications suggest that he was a lone wolf or that he — like millions of Afghans — suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. A French security source told the conservative daily Le Figaro that Mansour, who was captured after the attack, asserted he had become enraged over the video of U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses.

What is certain is that the four flag-draped coffins that arrived in France in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 23 brought the French death toll in Afghanistan to 82 since 2001. Eleven years into a fight without a clear victory, the attack spurred Sarkozy to freeze France’s training of Afghan soldiers and publicly mull withdrawing French troops on a sped-up timeline.

So, will Sarkozy’s France "go wobbly," as Margaret Thatcher used to say, in Afghanistan? The president set the stage for a wobble when he suggested that France requires substantive assurances that Afghan authorities will properly vet recruits to avoid putting French trainers at unnecessary risk. Sarkozy promised to seek clarification during a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris slated for Jan 27. If he isn’t convinced, Sarkozy suggested, France is gone.

But there are reasons to doubt Sarkozy’s seriousness. If this attack, in a remote Afghan province, really shook the Elysée as much as the president suggested, should Washington be worried about the possibility of losing 3,600 French military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan in short order? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded remarkably unconcerned about that possibility after she expressed her condolences on Jan. 20. "I am in great sympathy with what happened to the French soldiers. It was terrible and I can certainly appreciate the strong feelings that are being expressed," Clinton said at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "We are in close contact with our French colleagues and we have no reason to believe that France will do anything other than continue to be part of the very carefully considered transition process."

Her confidence that France would stay put until 2014, along with the rest of NATO, enjoyed apparent confirmation when she spoke with French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé the next day, as they discussed ways to strengthen their effectiveness and security in Afghanistan. Juppé said several days later that France should not "succumb to panic" by pulling out troops too early. This certainly doesn’t make it sound like the French foreign-policy establishment is preparing for withdrawal.

So is it political posturing? Could it be that Sarkozy’s public doubts are in large part due to France’s looming presidential elections this spring? The latest polls indicate that the strikingly unpopular incumbent, who faces the disapproval of more than two-thirds of the French electorate, will be crushed by double-digit percentages in a likely run-off with Socialist Party candidate François Hollande. Several polls show Hollande defeating Sarkozy by as much as 14 percent.

While a majority of the French (albeit just 55 percent) supported NATO’s entry into Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, most of France long ago shifted toward bringing home their soldiers after the Taliban were pushed from power. Now, with the Taliban’s radical international elements pushed beyond Afghan’s borders (into Pakistan) and Osama bin Laden in a watery grave, the feeling is even stronger. A survey taken last August, prior to a recent surge in the killing of French military personnel, showed that 75 percent of French citizens were in favor of moving up the French withdrawal.

Hollande is sensitive to these concerns. His appeal has much to do with his low-key likability, his everyman sensibility, and his refreshingly understated slate of limited-cost domestic promises in a time of double-dip recession and austerity — all in stark contrast to Sarkozy, who promised almost limitless reforms during the 2007 campaign and a bold foreign policy agenda, and who has little to show for it now.

On Afghanistan, Hollande is benefitting from promising less of a French military presence (a money saver, as well as a life saver), and he is giving the impression that he is more likely to deliver. "Their sacrifices deserve respect from the entire nation," Hollande said of the most recent casualties this weekend, as he simultaneously rolled-out elements of his modest domestic platform and restated his intention to bring all troops home by the end of 2012 — at the latest. "We must have the lucidity to say … that our mission in Afghanistan is finished," Hollande said on Jan. 22.

Surely aware that a Socialist victory could guarantee a sped-up French withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pentagon has been careful not to undermine Sarkozy, as Clinton did when she offered assurances that France would remain in Afghanistan, implicitly suggesting to the French electorate that the president’s doubts about NATO mission there were insubstantial. A Pentagon spokesman respectfully emphasized that the decision about when to withdraw French troops lies fully in Sarkozy’s hands. After all, it would only serve the Socialists, and make an early French withdrawal more likely, if Sarkozy were successfully portrayed as Washington’s poodle.

But the communications contortions coming out of the Elysée presidential palace these days are the norm given a tough electoral climate that leaves Sarkozy with little time and even less leeway on the issues that most worry the French. The two-round elections begin on April 22, with a run-off on May 6. Up until now, Sarkozy’s presidential campaign has bordered on the surreal, based on the odd analysis by his inner circle that as France’s president in a time of crisis, le peuple don’t want a candidate, they want a leader. Based on this analysis, Sarkozy hasn’t even formally confirmed that he is running yet, running a kind of stealth campaign disguised as actual governance. At this point, the Elysée’s strategy borders on the farcical, given that the ruling political movement has no other plausible candidate for the presidency, and given that Sarkozy’s candidacy is a fait accompli to nearly everyone in France.

But most French people also feel that Sarkozy has failed on the lion’s share of the most significant issues that propelled him to victory in 2007. He promised the French that they could "work more to earn more," that unemployment would drop to just 5 percent and that their purchasing power would grow. Instead, unemployment is at 9.7 percent and rising, the retirement age has increased by two years, and he is trimming or eliminating an array of popular government subsidies. France has recently entered into a second recession, lost its across-the-board AAA credit rating, and he’s increased an array of taxes that affect rich and poor alike.

The traditional pathway to re-election for a French incumbent — spreading money around and making big-budget promises — is no longer available given that international credit agencies are keeping a close eye on French spending. So Sarkozy is relegated to doing little of substance other than playing defense, whether on fiscal policy, unemployment, or even protecting the French mission in Afghanistan. As he made clear in his comments to diplomats, Afghanistan is a war that he inherited, but that he thinks is just. A majority of the French initially agreed, and perhaps they still do, but three in four now believe — as does Sarkozy’s challenger — that it doesn’t make sense for France to linger much longer. A slight majority of Sarkozy’s own party also feels this way. So how long can the president continue to swim against the tide?

Eric Pape is a writer in Paris.

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