The decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan has re-awakened suspicions that Paris is not to be trusted as an ally. Sarkozy responded to the deaths on January 20th of four French soldiers by ordering the return of all France’s combat troops in 2013, a year before NATO plans to end major operations in Afghanistan. Defence officials in London and Washington have privately condemned the decision as poorly-timed or, worse, a cynical political ploy ahead of France’s presidential elections in April and May 2012. This belittles genuine concerns in France about the conduct of the war. A closer analysis shows that the French government is ahead of other allies in recognising that NATO's strategy has not worked.
French officials believe that the alliance is rewarding a profoundly corrupt government in Kabul that has shirked its commitment to reform. French thinking on Afghanistan is in line with that of David Galula, a French military strategist, who wrote what the US military itself regards as the definitive treatise on counterinsurgency. The lesson of the French war in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s, Galula wrote, is that military accomplishments are meaningless unless accompanied by a process to establish legitimate and broadly accepted political order. In Algeria, the French won the tactical battle against the insurgency but failed to offer a credible government to run the country – and in the end, the French public turned against what it saw as a hopeless problem requiring an expensive military commitment. In Afghanistan, the Americans are repeating France’s mistake from Algeria: they have put too much faith in a government that is so self-serving and corrupt that it stands no chance of increasing its credibility with the Afghan people. A recently leaked NATO report buttresses French views: it suggests that many Afghan officials have been actively working with the insurgency in order to distance themselves from the Karzai government.
The French have bitter first-hand experience with corruption and double-dealing on the part of Afghan officials. When Barack Obama launched an Afghan ‘surge’ in 2009, Sarkozy raised France’s contingent to just short of 4,000, and the French assumed a lead military role in Kabul and the neighbouring Kapisa province. Despite minimal consultations from Washington, Sarkozy decided to give Obama’s strategy the benefit of the doubt and refused to rule out additional troop increases in the future. But France quickly found that one of its most dangerous enemies in Kapisa was the provincial governor himself, who extorted the local populace and tipped off insurgents about the whereabouts and plans of French troops. Eventually, following considerable French and coalition pressure, President Hamid Karzai removed the governor in 2010. But French diplomats were appalled when the deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, who was responsible for prosecuting the former governor, was in turn removed by Karzai. The president also vetoed a number of investigations of his senior government officials. Today Faqiryar, one of Afghanistan's chief fighters against corruption, lives under virtual house arrest in Kabul and is forbidden to receive visitors.
The Afghan security forces should be the French troops' closest ally. But in 2011 the International Crisis Group cited Kapisa as “one of the best examples of the nexus between the insurgency and corrupt Afghan security forces”, a statement privately endorsed rather than refuted by French military officers. France lays the blame on the Kabul government, which, Paris says, needs to reform and reconcile with its enemies if NATO intervention is to make any difference. And unlike Washington, Paris sees no point in sending a short-term ‘surge’ of troops to provinces where the Afghan government refused to curb the activities of predatory and corrupt officials.
Paris is having little success in getting Washington to listen; the US frequently ignores French concerns about corruption and incompetence in the Afghan government. Throughout 2010 and 2011, French diplomats in Afghanistan warned that the sharp increase in US aid under the Obama administration fuels corruption and indirectly funds insurgency (because many subcontractors pay 'protection' money to the Taliban). US officials recognised that their contracting and oversight procedures were flawed, but they chose to keep faith with Karzai’s vague promises to curb corruption, even though the Afghan government had deliberately obstructed several prior anti-corruption initiatives. Successive commitments to reform made at high-level conferences were ignored. Despite mounting evidence of misuse, US aid to Afghanistan almost trebled between 2008 and 2011.
Another clash between Paris and Washington occurred in 2010, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended the negotiation of financial aid to Afghanistan upon the refusal of the Karzai government to stop and investigate the theft of millions of dollars of aid money through Kabul Bank. France was particularly adamant that the international community should stand united in supporting the IMF and not allocate further large-scale funding to the Afghan government until it reformed the Kabul Bank and prosecuted those responsible for the scandal. But US military leaders complained that the Europeans were interfering with their timetable to build up the Afghan security forces and committed to fund the Afghan Ministries of Defence and Interior regardless of the IMF’s position.
Rather than addressing the shortcomings of NATO strategy, coalition headquarters in Kabul have a dangerous tendency to publicly present an exaggerated picture of success. For example, NATO officials cite polls claiming that the Afghan National Police (ANP), which assumed control of the Surobi district of Kabul from France in 2011, enjoyed 70 to 80 per cent approval ratings among the local populace. But French officers, who have seen first-hand the predatory behaviour of the ANP in Surobi, dismiss the figure as absurd, and point out that respondents are often afraid to voice their true opinions: many Afghan agencies that conduct such polls are not trusted and often travel with loathed private security companies. NATO needs the figures to look good because it has based its departure upon the capability of the Afghan government to deliver improved security and governance. France initially went along with this approach because it promised a quick exit but it has long doubted its credibility. The reality is that many provinces have become less stable since the US-led surge of 2009, yet NATO stubbornly claims that its strategy remains on course.
This is the context in which Paris made the decision to withdraw in 2013. France has had enough: its government has concluded that another year or so of a large-scale NATO military presence will not make a difference in the long-term as long as the Afghan government is obstructing rather than helping NATO to improve the governance of Afghanistan.
On balance, Sarkozy’s announcement is to be welcomed. After years of hand-wringing, misspent lives and money, a major member of NATO has finally sent a clear political signal to Kabul. In future France may become the first country to completely link its aid in Afghanistan to real progress in governance, as opposed to questionable opinion polls or recruitment numbers of new police officers. (There is no point in continuing to train security forces if their commanders are not interested in observing the law and intimidate anti-corruption agencies.) France should try to convince other countries and the EU to limit aid until the Kabul government seriously tackles corruption. The evidence is on the side of Paris: despite billions of dollars of aid and thousands of NATO casualties, Afghans trust the international community and their own government less and less.
US leaders such as former Defence Secretary Robert Gates failed the key rule of coalition fighting: the need to listen to, and act on, the views of other allies. They dismissed dissenting European voices on Afghanistan as a sign of weakness rather than foresight. Instead of giving allies more influence over the strategy, Washington repeatedly demanded more ‘boots on the ground’ and money. David Galula could have told them that this is never enough.
Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.