Sarkozy Considers Withdrawal from Afghanistan After Death of French Soldiers

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Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images

French soldiers from the 7th Mountain Infantry Battalion (7eme bataillon de chasseurs alpins BCA) on patrol near Tagab in Kapisa Province on January 25, 2011.

Is the outraged French response to the shooting death of four of its forces in Afghanistan by a suspected Afghan soldier Friday a sign that Paris may speed the pull out of its troops from the NATO-led operation? Or is the dramatic reaction by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to what aren’t exactly novel killings of Western personnel by Afghan army fighters or Taliban infiltrators aimed more at  re-establishing his leadership credentials ahead of his uphill re-election bid?  That question will be one of considerable debate in France–and some concern abroad–as observers wait to see exactly what the consequences are of Sarkozy’s decision Friday to suspend French participation in training Afghan army forces.

It still isn’t entirely clear whether the man arrested for fatally shooting the four French fighters and injuring 16 other people in eastern Afghanistan Friday was an Afghan army soldier, or instead a Taliban infiltrator. In some ways, however, that may be academic. The killing of Western forces by assailants in Afghan army uniform has become an increasingly frequent occurrence–one that earlier claimed the lives of two French Legionnaires less than a month ago. Yet something has clearly changed between those two attacks. While Sarkozy’s response to the French deaths blamed on Afghan soldiers in December was low key, his reaction Friday was both swift and dramatic. He announced an immediate suspension of French involvement in the training and joint patrols with Afghan army forces, and dispatched Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé and Defense Minister Gérard Longuet to Afghanistan to review the situation—a deployment of cabinet heavyweights designed to highlight the gravity of Paris’ diplomatic state of mind.

Sarkozy also suggested he may revise his 2011 decision to draw down French forces in Afghanistan towards a complete withdrawal in 2014. That would presumably mean speeding up the pull out process in response to what Sarkozy called “unacceptable” violence directed towards French troops by Afghan peers.“If security conditions aren’t in place, we’ll pose the question of an earlier return of the French army to France,” Sarkozy said, noting the current timetable’s 2014 termination. “It’s a difficult decision, but I must assume it.”

Oh, that last sentence. While that’s doubtless true for Sarkozy and any leader whose forces are facing danger abroad, his emphatic reaction to Friday’s killings–contrasting the tempered response to December troop deaths under similar circumstances–have some observers wondering if there aren’t ulterior electoral motives driving his sudden change in temperament. The reason? As noted here previously, Sarkozy faces rather long odds in a still undeclared re-election bid, and with voting less than 100 days off is looking to improve his chance. Just this week Sarkozy took new steps—and considerable risk—to re-establish his reputation in voters’ eyes as a determined leader and defender of French interests by vowing a new labor reform drive. For that reason, some pundits are already wondering whether Sarkozy’s dramatic response to the Afghan situation doesn’t also reflect his desire to strike a bold and protective pose in response to the killings of French soldiers certain to stir emotions within public opinion.

There are additional reasons skeptic suspect political calculating behind Sarkozy’s Afghan reaction—and doubt his willingness to actually pull French forces back home ahead of schedule. Though there are over 130,300 total troops under NATO command in Afghanistan now, France’s 3,900 contingent is one of the largest European forces present, after the UK’s 9,500, Germany’s 4,818 and Italy’s 3,950 (and around 90,000 from the U.S.). France is only one of ten nations with more than 1,000 pairs of boots on the ground. Meanwhile, the restricted activity of many of those non-U.S. units greatly limits the actual role they play in Afghanistan, and leaves the heaviest lifting to the considerably more engaged (and exposed) forces from countries like the UK and France working in coordination with American peers. A significant scaling back of French operational involvement in Afghanistan—or a stepped up withdrawal—would therefore have a serious, complicating impact on NATO’s wider effort in the country that at first view might seem totally disproportionate with the number of French troops on ground.

Meantime, Friday’s killings bring France’s death toll in the decade-long Afghanistan operation to 82. But neither that number, nor the latest manner in which French troops were slain, can provide Sarkozy the same security justification vis-à-vis his NATO allies for stepping up France’s withdrawal as it has offered what he hopes may be an  emotional bridge back to an increasingly distant French public. Giving voice to France’s collective pain and outrage Friday may push his polling numbers up a bit as election day looms, but Sarkozy knows his reasoning in the veiled pull out threat won’t gain any sympathy or respect from nations that have lost even more soldiers—including the over 1,870 deaths suffered by the U.S., nearly 400 by the UK, and 158 by Canada.

Meanwhile, however sensitive Friday’s French deaths are in emotional electoral terms, they’re only the small visible tip of a much larger and scarier security problem for NATO forces–and far wider Western interests. As the New York Times reports today, the slaying of NATO troops by Afghan forces has not only become an increasingly frequent occurrence, but one that’s also provoking serious resentment and divisions within the West’s fragile partnership with the Afghan army. The Times refers to a confidential coalition report it obtained detailing the hostility, distrust, and disdain that killings between the two nominally allied forces have produced, and the rising suspicions of treason soldiers and commanders on both sides of the increasingly fractious partnership harbor for one another.

In other words, Friday’s shooting of the four French soldiers is merely the grim symptom of a bigger ill in Afghanistan that NATO forces must somehow cure before the looming 2014 exit date. If not, they risk leaving the country knowing it isn’t much more stable against Taliban offensives—or more reliable a partner for the international community—than it was during the operation’s earlier stages. Suggesting he might lock down or haul back French forces from the pit of Afghan treachery may sound good to short-term electoral ears, but Sarkozy knows the job he has—and wants to retain—obligates him to act in longer-term French interests that don’t fit neatly into any election calendar.

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