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Redefining France’s Role in Afghanistan: Need for better Strategy

Guillem Monsonis, Researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics, is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 22, 2009

    In a recent poll for the newspaper Le Parisien, 55 per cent of the French public expressed their disagreement with the presence of the French military in Afghanistan. A number of political and strategic mistakes contributed to this difficult situation being faced by Sarkozy’s government regarding the war in Afghanistan. The situation is also exacerbated by the fact that 10 soldiers of the 8th RPIMA lost their lives in the Uzbin sector in late August after a brilliantly orchestrated ambush by elements of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami which shocked the country.

    France is involved in the Afghan theatre in both the US led Enduring Freedom operation and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since 2002. Their main mission has been to secure and monitor the Kabul region and to train the Afghan National Army (ANA). However, very little is known about the missions performed by the Special Forces between 2003 and 2007 in the eastern region close to the Pakistan border. The French Navy led the operation Heracles with the Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft carrier battle group in which Super Etendard Modernises (SEM) aircraft performed strikes, intelligence gathering and show of force in support of the US troops on the ground.

    Islamist strategists perfectly understand what the Achilles’ heel of democratic societies is and use a deadly efficient strategy using all the available non-conventional assets, especially the media, in their asymmetric war against western hi-tech armies. The pictures published by the weekly magazine Paris Match showing the Taliban holding several belongings of the killed French troops gave a severe blow to the already weak French popular support to the war. Recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that Western public opinion is now extremely reluctant to pay the price of blood for their government’s wars. The sequel to the idealistic theory of ‘zero dead war’, which was popularized during the Gulf War (1991) and NATO’s campaign in Kosovo (1999), seems to have survived in post-modern European countries’ perception of war. The sacrosanct ‘right to life’ promoted in developed democratic countries is hardly compatible with long term asymmetric wars against well trained and motivated fighters. In this respect, democracies suffer a relative disadvantage when fighting against fundamentalist militants or authoritarian regimes. In a recent interview, the French Chief of the Defense Staff, General Jean Louis Gergolin, complained that “war has deserted our minds". This apathy towards war is doubled by a negative perception of defence expenditures which is seen as a big waste of public money. But as the famous French writer Pierre Corneille wrote, to win without risk is to triumph without glory: France has to accept that the price for defeating international terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan will be high, and will need a strong involvement on the ground. How should the French government solve the dilemma of rallying public opinion which is ‘proud of its army but worried for its children’?

    Better communication may be the key. Hervé Morin, the controversial French Minister of Defence, refused to use the word ‘war’ to qualify Afghanistan’s operations during a debate in the National Assembly. The French government seems to be exactly reproducing the same mistakes made at the height of the storm in Algeria 40 years ago when the word ‘war’ was replaced by ‘events’. Therefore, Government’s communication on the role of Armed Forces used to emphasise mostly on their humanitarian and developmental duties. The concept of the ‘reconstruction of Afghanistan’ is often used to explain to the general public what the French troops are doing there. This overemphasis on non-combatant activities hides the ground realities the troops are facing in their everyday missions. It was predictable that with the decision to deploy troops in the eastern part of Afghanistan (before this, France was mostly operating in the Kabul region), the exposure of the troops to militant attacks would increase. The government must clearly explain the reasons for the war effort and insist on its long term benefits, as most of the French just don’t see any relation between France’s homeland security and the operations being conducted in Afghanistan, despite Sarkozy’s recent efforts to link both aspects. Explaining that the calm witnessed for a few years in France may not last, as demonstrated by the recent attempt by the terrorists to place an explosive device in a store in Paris, it needs to be emphasized that the success of the war may be crucial in securing the country and therefore it should be a priority.

    In order to achieve this objective, France needs to face another harsh reality: the sustained reduction in French military capabilities. Means simply do not match ambitions. The recent publication of the White Book (Livre Blanc) on defence and national security generated a stormy debate on French military capabilities and objectives. The reduction of 54,000 positions in the armed forces and the resizing of the expeditionary force strength (from 50,000 to 30,000 troops) have been heavily criticized. The lack of intelligence gathering capabilities, especially helicopters and UAVs, is especially problematic in Afghan operations. Without the support of those means, the rigid and predictable convoys of APCs are especially vulnerable to heavily armed attacks by guerrillas with a good knowledge of the terrain. The lack of such capabilities was recently raised by the armed forces who complained about the poor political support Sarkozy has displayed towards the French military establishment. The White Book on defence tries to overcome those gaps and suggest the acquisition of a strong UAV and satellite force by doubling the expenditure in the space military sector.

    While facing an economic slowdown generated by the global economic crisis, France would also need more aerial assets to support land forces. But Paris only deployed 3 multi-role fighter/bombers Rafale F2, 3 Mirage 2000D bombers and aerial tankers. If the deployment of the 4+ generation Rafale was good news in May 2007 (it can carry 6 GBU-12 bombs versus 2 for the Mirage 2000D), the latest French fighters need to be assisted by the Mirage for targeting because they are not suited with a Damocles laser targeting pod. This capability will be acquired in 2012, with the new standard F3. There is also a lack of transport helicopters deployed in the theatre of operations, and Paris is planning to deploy 3 additional helicopters (1 EC-725 Caracal, 2 Gazelles SA-342 and probably some Tiger combat helicopters). This capability gap contributed, along with poor co-ordination between the different units on the ground, to the disastrous patrol mission in Uzbin, where no reinforcements were available for more than one hour.

    For France, the stakes are high. It is not only about defeating the nebula of international terrorism; it is also a question of international status. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France faces strong pressure from several European Members of Parliament who want to replace the French seat by a European one. Paris has to show its capability to deal with international issues like a great power and justify its political primacy in Europe. While France is close to reintegrating with NATO’s integrated command structure, its achievements in the Afghan theatre and the means Paris is able to mobilize will be a strong determinant of its future capacity for influence inside the alliance structures and will also determine the promotion of a still embryonic European defence. The results of this policy will not only be crucial for France’s Grandeur, but will also be indicative of the future role for middle sized powers in the post-cold war international system.