France Not Quitting Afghan Campaign After All

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Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images

French soldiers from the 1st Infantry Regiment return to the Nijrab FOB (Forward Operating Base) military base in Tora, in the Surobi province in Afghanistan, on Dec. 31, 2011.

Okay, so not leaving Afghanistan—yet, anyway.

Despite suggestions-cum-threats by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week that he’d consider pulling France’s nearly 3,900 forces out of Afghanistan in response to the killing of four French troops by an Afghan army soldier, officials in Paris are now making it clear a hasty withdrawal isn’t an option. Meantime, a report in le Monde indicates Sarkozy’s other reaction to the shootings—ordering the immediate suspension of French training and joint patrol with Afghan army forces—was never actually applied on ground. As a result, pundits who suspected Sarkozy’s dramatic response to last week’s fatalities was mainly designed to give a patriotic lift to his depressed-looking re-election chances are feeling rather vindicated right now.

Confirmation that French forces will not be pulled out of Afghanistan ahead of the current 2014 time table for gradual withdrawal came Tuesday from Foreign Affairs Ministry Alain Juppé—an accomplished diplomat who has impressed foreign peers with his long-term thinking and fixed strategic vision that doesn’t bend in the ebbs and flows of political opportunity. Under questioning from opposition Socialist legislators urging a full troop withdrawal by the end of this year, Juppé tartly warned his rivals against giving in to “panic” created by what French officials have called the “murder” of the four soldiers by a nominally friendly Afghan peer.

“We must not give in to panic, (and) we must not confuse an orderly withdrawal with a rushed withdrawal,” Juppé responded to hostile leftist parliamentarians. “When I hear talk of an immediate withdrawal, such as at the end of 2012, I am not sure that this has been thought through and studied.”

In other words, pulling out by 2013 would be a frenzied rush-job—meaning any withdrawal ahead of the planned 2014 would also involve a dangerous degree of recklessness. So much for Sarkozy’s early departure threat.

“Let there be no doubt about France’s will to complete its mission in co-ordination with the other 47 countries.” Juppé’s boss, Prime Minister François Fillon confirmed later Tuesday. “This mission is not over.”

While those declarations had to be welcome in the ears of NATO commanders overseeing the Afghan mission, they rather starkly contrasted Sarkozy’s comments Friday, when he vented anger and indignation at French forces being gunned down by an Afghan ally. Though that was far from the first case of Western troops having been killed by Afghan army forces—or Taliban infiltrators wearing their uniforms—details that have emerged since Friday’s killings may explain and justify Sarkozy’s heated, emotional response—at least in part.

The four French soldiers were killed while unarmed and playing sports in their free time on a base housing Afghan and foreign troops. Fire doesn’t get much more friendly—or treacherous—than that. Meanwhile, the assailant has also reportedly told interrogators he decided to kill Westerners after having watched video footage of U.S. troops urinating on several Taliban corpses. Whether he knew that on Friday or not, Sarkozy’s reply to events made it clear he was so outraged at French soldiers being gunned down by members of an Afghan army they were working to train, organize, and generally assist that an immediate suspension of all cooperation on ground–and re-think of France’s very presence in the country–was the only logical action to take.

It now appears taking no action was the only move to make. Juppé’s rejection Tuesday of a stepped-up France pullout so soon after Sarkozy’s warning of a rapid departure suggests the actual objective of the premature withdrawal threat was more psychological—and electoral—than credible in diplomatic and military terms. The context of Juppé’s remarks indicate the same. In vowing French forces will stay put, Juppé and other figures in Sarkozy’s ruling conservative majority moved to counter pledges made increasingly louder by rival Socialists since Friday’s shootings that they’ll bring all of France’s troops home from Afghanistan by the end of the year if they win general elections this spring. In depicting the Socialist plan to speed up France’s gradual drawdown ending in 2014 as panicked, ill conceived, and generally clueless, Juppé delivered judgment also applicable to Sarkozy’s own warnings of early withdrawal. Sarkozy has never been accused of being either spineless or naïve—leading critics to surmise his threats Friday were basically political stagecraft with election imperatives in mind.

Some of those doubting French commentators have gone even farther, and explicitly termed Sarkozy’s response both cynical and manipulative in seeking to tap anticipated French public fury over the outrage in a manner that might lift his still undeclared by very much compromised re-election bid. Immediately ceasing to help Afghan ingrates—and theatrically threatening to pull brave and giving French forces from harm’s way—could serve that purpose, some commentators reasoned.

On Tuesday, le Monde provided evidence seeming to support such skeptics. The paper published a half page story (still behind a pay wall) stating joint missions have not only continued since Friday, but that a dangerous operation involving French and Afghan troops—and the largest ever of its kind to boot—had started over the weekend. It also quotes French military commanders in Kabul saying cooperation and confidence between both sides remains intact—though they do note French forces are now having to segregate themselves in mixed camps from Afghan troops, and fortify French sections in a manner other Western troops have practices for a long while.

As for Sarkozy’s warning of a rapid, early pullout ahead of the current 2014 departure date, le Monde cites French army officials calling the idea fanciful. In addition to extremely heavy and costly logistical efforts a sped-up withdrawal would require, the paper quotes French military commanders saying the time cut off the 2014 date would be limited. They also say the absence of their current troops combined with decreased numbers of the Afghan soldiers French forces are supposed to be training to secure the country would leave remaining NATO forces dangerously under-staffed, exposed to Taliban attack, and unable to fulfill much of the objectives that need to be attained before 2014.

All of which suggests that critics who characterized Sarkozy’s reaction Friday as election-minded pantomime designed to elicit support from a shocked French public may have called things right. That seems more likely given the le Monde report indicating Sarkozy had to know that making good on the halted cooperation order and pullout threat wasn’t feasible, even as he made them. Yet if that’s the case, Sarkozy’s disingenuous stand also throws serious questions at Socialist opponents now looking like a good bet to take power in the looming elections. Chief among them, how can they fulfill promises to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, when the idea of a pull-out ahead of 2014 has now been described as dangerous, impossible, and misleading when floated by Sarkozy?