Should French soldiers return to Afghanistan?

Didier Chaudet

Faced with the United States, would France have a say in the policy in Afghanistan? Be careful not to continue our simplistic reading of the situation on the spot …
The attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, Saturday, January 20, 2018, recalled a terrible fact, but we must accept: the Afghan central government and its foreign support, after all these years of war since the fall of the regime Taliban, was not even able to secure its capital. Because this is not the first attack suffered by the latter since the beginning of 2017, far from it .
A few years ago, some analysts liked to call Hamid Karzai, the first post-2001 president of Afghanistan, the “mayor of Kabul”. Today, one may wonder if his successor, Ashraf Ghani, can dare to claim this title. And the Taliban remain active throughout the country, hold territories, and stand up to Kabul, despite their internal divisions since the death of Mullah Omar, and despite the competition of Daesh on the spot.
Trump’s America has decided, in the face of the difficult situation of Afghanistan, to remain in a classical logic: priority to the military approach of the conflict, and use of Pakistan as scapegoat to mask the American military failure (and NATO) and the weaknesses of the Afghan central government, explaining the success of the rebellion (bad governance, widespread corruption, even having a negative effect on the means of the Afghan army, in particular …).
With the choice of a military response by the Americans, Washington will be tempted to ask its NATO allies to “do more.” Maybe, tomorrow, by sending additional troops?
89 dead French soldiers
The French commitment to NATO had gone up to 4,000 in 2010. 89 of our soldiers died to stabilize Afghanistan, and another 700 were wounded. These soldiers did their duty. But the politicians who sent them into this fight, did they? We can legitimately ask the question.
It does not seem clear that France really had any influence on US military decisions. This is the case for all the “big” US allies in NATO. If, tomorrow, our leaders decide to send French soldiers again to fight there, will they be able to ensure that our forces, this time, are not mere substitutes, that France will have a say in the mission to conduct on the spot? Nothing is less sure.
Afghanistan is now an independent country. It certainly needs a lot of help, especially in terms of air capacity. But by 2015, Americans had already spent $ 60 billion to train, equip and pay Afghan security forces. So in terms of fighters on the ground, Kabul should have the means to wage his own war against the Taliban. The idea of foreign forces still present on the spot does not really make much sense.
We understand that the Iranians, Chinese, Russians and Pakistanis are uncomfortable with the idea of foreign forces in Afghanistan: from a theoretical point of view in any case, this is no longer justified. Of course, then, there is the reality on the ground: corruption, which has meant that a significant portion of the money supposed to help build the security forces in Afghanistan has been diverted year after year. It’s known, and many articles have already been written about it.
So to the question: will it be necessary, in the near future, to send French soldiers, again, to Afghanistan, and put them in a fighting situation, today, the answer is clearly “no”. It would be misguided, even criminal, to send young Frenchmen into a war that lasted long enough to prove that a military solution is not possible in Afghanistan. All the neighborhood of this country understood it. Only Trump’s America refuses this reality. The Americans, far more than us French, have paid financially, but also in human life, the simplistic reading of the Afghan conflict that will have been those of their elites until today. There is no reason for Emmanuel Macron’s France to follow them in this error.
Other ways to help Afghanistan
There are other ways to help: offer more help to Afghanistan, to help its military forces but also the reconstruction of the country … but only if Paris is serious in its opposition to corruption; and be more active diplomatically in the region, discuss the Afghan conflict with Pakistanis, Iranians, Chinese, Russians, to show that we are, again, an independent country, and also that we want to help peace through regional dialogue.
While the use of force has been used in recent years in Afghanistan (unsuccessfully), rigorous regional diplomacy has not really been conducted. In part because France has not had a serious South Asian policy in the last decade, and Europeans in general have not done better…
Americans, on the other hand, have often seen the Afghan regional environment only as an opportunity to find scapegoats for their military failure. And with President Trump, we cannot expect an American evolution towards a diplomatic logic to stabilize Afghanistan.
Some, reading this article, will ask themselves the following question: if the answer was negative in the author’s mind from the beginning, why did you ask the question? Because there are, in the French intellectual milieu, “hawk” ideologues, who see the world in Manichean terms. There would always be a camp of “Good”, against that of “Evil”, without any nuance.
We have found these hawks on the Iranian record in recent years. These are the ones who applauded the presidencies Sarkozy and Hollande when they were more aggressive with Tehran than the Americans themselves. They are the ones who, on television sets, like to systematically criticize Iran, Russia and China as if we were in a “cold war” against these countries. They have a suggestive and selective approach in their love of human rights: we hardly hear them defend the Rohingya in Burma, the Kashmiris in India, or the Palestinians. In short, these French hawks are often very much aligned with their American counterparts. We do not see how their vision of the world can defend French and European interests; on the other hand, it makes them zealous auxiliaries of interventionists and nationalists in the United States…
War logic
Without having real specialties, they often become “connoisseurs” of what is fashionable at the moment. Thus, many have become great specialists of Syria or Iranian society lately … And tomorrow, it is feared that these same ideologues, like Daesh fighters, migrate from Syria to Afghanistan. And ask on all media that France follows Trump America in its war logic in the latter country.
The author of these lines has the weakness to refuse that the life of our young soldiers is endangered in an endless war. Endless war because President Trump refuses to dialogue with Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad in order to push the various Afghan forces together to a compromise peace. 89 of our soldiers have already died for Afghanistan.
The dangers coming from the Sahel, from Syria still in civil war, from unstable Iraq, are far more real dangers for us Europeans. If French soldiers are to be deployed, it is first and foremost in areas clearly dangerous for our security and that of Europe. Let us help Afghanistan stabilize, work with China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia to help achieve regional peace for all. Let our diplomats be at the forefront of an ambitious peace mission. It will be far more fruitful for French interests and peace in Afghanistan than to follow the French “hawks” or “neo-conservatives” who only have wars in their mouths … while they, or their children, do not are never on the battlefield.

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