French president François Hollande visited French military troops in Afghanistan on Friday, telling them that they will be home by next Christmas.
France has been involved in the ongoing counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan as part of the NATO coalition since December 2001. NATO has decided to pull out its troops in two years but Hollande announced that his troops would be gone before the end of the year.
Acting on a pledge made during the French presidential election campaign, Hollande stated that though the terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan has not completely disappeared, it has been clearly diminished, something that “we all can be proud of.” Of the 3,500 French troops in Afghanistan, approximately 2,000 will be removed before Christmas and no combat troops will remain after 2012.
President Nicolas Sarkozy had already pledged to withdraw combat troops off Afghanistan by December 2013, a year ahead of the American pullout of 2014. During the campaign, candidate Hollande announced that he would pull out French troops a year earlier.
Hollande remained relatively vague on the details and the modalities of the withdrawal but there was little doubt of the strength of his commitment. Hollande supported sending French troops in 2001 but was against the expanded mission in 2008. He argued that going after Al Qaeda was a necessary mission back in 2001 but that the surge against the Taliban in 2008 was a misguided open ended mission.
In addition, the French electorate has grown tired of an extended conflict that does not seem ripe for closure anytime soon. That is particularly true of Hollande’s supporters on the left and the far-left ends of the political spectrum.
However, Hollande took pains to leave his pledge slightly murky to allow for some maneuvering. In particular, he was noncommittal as to whether all troops or only combat troops would leave Afghanistan. And he was similarly vague as to what kind of future assistance France might want to afford Afghanistan.
The new policy is that all combat troops will depart by December 2012. A unit will remain in Afghanistan for a training mission and France will continue to fund cultural, educational, development and archeological projects and promote economic growth and trade.
Aware that an advanced pullout might irk other NATO members, particularly the United States, Hollande selected as defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian whose NATO connections could come in handy to soften the blow and reassure allies. He also rolled out his policy by first privately informing his NATO colleagues, chief among them American president Barack Obama, and then make his public announcement at the Chicago NATO summit.
The secret trip to Afghanistan to announce the new measures directly to the troops pretty much ensures that the policy will not be significantly altered before Christmas as a recantation would have potentially devastating effects on Hollande’s credibility.
The rollout of the policy in Hollande’s first international sortie went fairly well from his point of view. It was not as drastic as could have been imagined based on some of his electoral speeches. The immediate pullout concerns combat troops operating in Kapisa Province. Overall control of Kapisa was handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces earlier this month. Presumably, the ANSF are already in charge and the French are now simply operating in a supporting role.
NATO allies have not lashed out and President Obama has chosen to not pressure Hollande in breaking his electoral pledge, a smart move if he thinks he might need Hollande’s support on other policy issues. Also, by leaving a training mission behind, the French military does not completely disappear from the scene.
Benjamin Linden and Timothy Woodard contributed to this analysis.
Wikistrat Bottom Lines
In his first international sortie, François Hollande successfully rolled out his Afghan policy despite many misgivings from allies on both sides of the Atlantic.
The United States chose wisely to build political capital with Hollande by not pressuring him to forego his electoral promise. Both may need each other on much more consequential issues later on, such as economic policy.
The withdrawal of French forces could leave a security vacuum that the ANSF is unable to fill. Security may deteriorate right at Kabul’s doors.
Overextended and aggrieved NATO allies may have to fill in the French shoes for a while until the transition is actually ripe. This would strain relations within the alliance down the road.
French public opinion is all but ready for a complete pullout of Afghanistan.
Will other NATO partners follow suit and hurry their redeployment out of the country?
Pascale Siegel contributed to this analysis.