Report

Macron Uses Biden’s Afghan Retreat to Push ‘Strategic Autonomy’

But doubts remain whether he can cut his own path in the Middle East.

By , an independent journalist based in New York
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Masoud Barzani in Erbil.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region, on Aug. 29. SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

When French President Emmanuel Macron posed for a “family photo” at a gathering of regional leaders in Baghdad last weekend, he was the sole Western head of state. Although the U.S. ambassador to Iraq was there as an observer, the formal invitations specified the meeting was occurring in “coordination and cooperation with France.”

The message Macron wanted to send was clear: He, unlike the Americans, was committed to staying in the Middle East. And though his visit was completely overshadowed by the bloody U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan 1,800 miles away, Macron used the moment to cast some shade on the Americans. 

“Whatever the American choice,” he said in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence to fight terrorism in Iraq as long as the terrorist groups continue to operate and as long as the Iraqi government asks us for this support.”

When French President Emmanuel Macron posed for a “family photo” at a gathering of regional leaders in Baghdad last weekend, he was the sole Western head of state. Although the U.S. ambassador to Iraq was there as an observer, the formal invitations specified the meeting was occurring in “coordination and cooperation with France.”

The message Macron wanted to send was clear: He, unlike the Americans, was committed to staying in the Middle East. And though his visit was completely overshadowed by the bloody U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan 1,800 miles away, Macron used the moment to cast some shade on the Americans. 

“Whatever the American choice,” he said in public remarks in Baghdad, “we will maintain our presence to fight terrorism in Iraq as long as the terrorist groups continue to operate and as long as the Iraqi government asks us for this support.”

It was a clear demonstration of Macron’s philosophy of “strategic autonomy”—code for European independence from U.S. security policy—and an attempt to use the United States’ humiliation to reassert that Europe was not necessarily on the same page as Washington. 

“Fighting Islamic jihad remains France’s top priority, and this trip demonstrates that,” Célia Belin, a French political scientist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email. “But in the context of the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, it is also a demonstration that French (and European) vital interests remain in the region, and that France (and Europe) are not leaving.”

Macron has been preaching the need for European sovereignty and strategic autonomy for years. He has called for the formation of a European army, which he sees as compatible with NATO, while the United States and other NATO allies do not. “We need two strong guiding principles,” he said in a lengthy interview late last year with the French diplomatic journal Le Grand Continent. “To get back on track with useful international cooperation that prevents war and addresses our current challenges, and to build a much stronger Europe.”

Like Macron’s hero, former French President Charles de Gaulle—who asserted France should act independently as a major power when, after the war, he initiated a “politics of grandeur”—the French president views his country as playing a unique role in global politics. But now, Macron is facing a real test of what his critics call mere bravura—especially since France deploys a scant 800 troops to support the operation in Iraq, compared to about 2,500 in U.S. forces. The level of U.S. troop presence in Iraq may remain the same after the mission changes to one solely of training and support.

On the one hand, European politicians are stirred by a new sense of urgency to develop stronger European forces, stemming from their frustration that the United States would not agree to extend the Aug. 31 deadline to allow more Afghans and foreign nationals be evacuated from Kabul’s airport. On the other hand, Macron is already confronted by dual conundrums after the fall of Afghanistan and a recent announcement by U.S. President Joe Biden that the United States would end its combat mission against the Islamic State, a mission it has shared with the French in Iraq and Syria, as U.S. forces transition to a training mission by the end of the year.

One of the messages at the heart of Macron’s visit to Iraq, according to a senior advisor at the Élysée, France’s presidential palace, was to emphasize the “consistency of the president of the republic in his commitment to the fight against terrorism.” He added that Macron views this region as part of France’s neighborhood.

But Michael Shurkin, the global programs director at 14 North Strategies and an expert on the French military, sees Macron’s remarks in Baghdad as political posturing. “France doles out military force as if with a medicine dropper,” he said. “Really, its purpose is showing the flag and enabling France to assign itself a seat at the table in the region.”

When it comes to military interventions in the Near East and North Africa, France has pursued an idiosyncratic path. Although then-French President Jacques Chirac famously refused to join the Iraq War in 2003, France did participate in the NATO coalition against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan right up until the mission transitioned from combat to training and supporting the Afghan army. Macron stressed the point that France’s military presence in Afghanistan had ended in 2014 in televised remarks to his nation a day after the country fell to the Taliban. 

Instead, France pivoted to combating the self-styled and far-flung Islamic State. In 2013, France started its own counterterrorism operation in the French-speaking West African region of the Sahel, an operation it carried out with U.S. logistical support. In 2014, it joined the effort to counter the Islamic State in Iraq, which it expanded to include Syria in 2015.

In all of this, the French were motivated by the threat of further terrorist attacks at home, including by French citizens who were trained in the Middle East or North Africa. Two coordinated assaults in 2015—on the so-called Charlie Hebdo newsroom and Bataclan nightclub—and on other locations, which in all claimed around 150 lives and injured hundreds more, have given France a clear sense of purpose akin to the young Americans who joined the military after the 9/11 attacks.

Macron’s new outreach to the Middle East is buoyed by polls showing some 80 percent of French people support the combat mission in Iraq and Syria, known in French as Opération Chammal, which is named after a wind that blows over Iraq and the Persian Gulf states. The operation in the Sahel, known as Opération Barkhane after a crescent-shaped dune in the Sahara desert, has fallen somewhat in public opinion polls as deaths have mounted—to date, some 55 French soldiers have died—but it is still supported by around half of the population.

And Macron, who has a 40 percent approval rating just over half a year from a presidential election, cannot afford to ignore the Iraq operation’s popularity back home. His term has been marked by a series of massive street protests over much of his domestic policy, from public union strikers to the yellow vests movement, where middle-class French demonstrated at traffic circles until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, tens of thousands of French people are marching in opposition to strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements that went into effect this week. 

At the same time, however, Macron may have a difficult time coming up with a coherent or independent Afghanistan policy. He is under some public pressure to support the nascent anti-Taliban Afghan resistance in Afghanistan’s remote Panjshir region. Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher and journalist who is known colloquially in the French press by his initials BHL, has penned opinion pieces on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean calling for support of resistance leader Ahmad Massoud. Lévy was close with Massoud’s father, Ahmad Shah Massoud, an urbane French-speaking Afghan. The Lion of Panjshir, as he was known for his decades of fighting the Russians and the Taliban, was assassinated two days before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. 

Last spring, Lévy ushered Massoud into a meeting with Macron at the Élysée. Massoud was in Paris for a ceremony naming a pathway in the Champs-Élysées gardens for his father. At the time, he shared on Twitter that he’d had a constructive meeting with the French president about “advancing Afghanistan-France relations & French/EU cooperation in bringing a just/lasting peace, stability & prosperity” to Afghanistan.

In the weeks since the fall of Kabul, Massoud and Lévy have written opinion pieces calling for French support for the struggle against the Taliban in Panjshir, where the fighting has already begun, by evoking World War II’s major Western leaders—then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and especially de Gaulle—a point that could hardly have been lost on the French president who, like all Fifth Republic presidents before him, styles himself as a Gaullist.

But because Macron’s primary focus is on fighting terrorism, especially the Islamic State, he could still align himself with the Americans in their efforts to work with, and put financial pressure on, the Taliban. “France is very serious about fighting Islamic State,” Shurkin said. “It is not implausible that the Taliban’s conflict with [the Islamic State] might encourage France to regard it as a lesser of two evils.”

The Taliban outreach to France has already begun. Before the last military flight lifted off from Kabul’s airport, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid made an appeal for diplomatic relations with France in an exclusive interview with France 24, a global television network based in Paris. After dismissing Americans as invaders and saying, “even confined to the Kabul airport, they cause problems for Afghans,” he went on to lavish praise on the French. “We are counting, in particular, on friendly diplomatic relations with France,” he said. “We will ensure the security of French nationals and diplomatic missions.”

In recent weeks, Macron has made a slew of phone calls to the leaders of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional influencers, including Iran, Iraq, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. That included an invitation for a visit to the Élysée in October to the president of Tajikistan, which is on Afghanistan’s northern border. The fighters in Panjshir are ethnic Tajiks. 

But it is also unclear how far Macron might be willing to go in Afghanistan and Iraq without the support of his NATO allies—especially the United States. True, memories are still fresh from when the French president referred to NATO as “brain dead” before the London summit marking the alliance’s 70th anniversary in 2019. At the time, then-U.S. President Donald Trump publicly harangued allies for not spending 2 percent of their GDPs on defense, something they had pledged to do by 2024. Trump left the summit early, canceling his final press conference at the last moment after a video emerged of Macron having a laugh with the British and Canadian prime ministers at Trump’s expense.

Transatlantic relations were supposed to improve once Biden declared “America is back.” In their phone call a few days after the U.S. president took office, Macron and Biden spoke about “their willingness to act together for peace and stability in the Near and Middle East.” A month later, however, Macron was telling the Financial Times ahead of a G-7 video conference that “Europe cannot delegate its protection and the protection of its neighborhood to the USA.”

Yet for now, the French president’s bid for strategic autonomy in his “neighborhood” may amount to words more than war preparations.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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