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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

How France lost Afghanistan

Coffins of seven French soldiers killed in service in Afghanistan are carried in the Invalides courtyard in Paris on Tuesday, July 19, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Eric Feferberg, Pool

The French mission in Afghanistan has been fraught with struggle. The French military has fought very hard in Afghanistan and lost a lot of soldiers in the process: 83 since 2001, behind only the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Yet, the newly elected French President François Hollande announced that French troops would withdraw from Afghanistan this year– sparking speculation about whether this indicated the NATO coalition there is starting to crumble. What happened?

(Full disclosure: I worked with the French military in the Kapisa Province, when I was deployed to Afghanistan as an employee of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System in 2009.)

France’s experience in Afghanistan has mirrored every other country’s misadventures in this Central Asian state: that is, some small successes followed by some pretty devastating defeats. Initially, the French involvement in Afghanistan was limited to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Kabul; as that mission expanded to encompass the entire country, France slowly amped up its involvement. By 2008, France had sole responsibility for a province north of Kabul, Kapisa, and a district of Kabul Province that borders it.

By August of 2008, though, the French mission was facing serious challenges. A shocking ambush in Sarobi, the district of Kabul Province they were responsible for patrolling, killed 10 French troops. It soon emerged that part of the reason why they were ambushed was because the Italian government was paying bribes to the local Taliban commander; when these bribes stopped, the Taliban attacked the French. It exposed a weakness in the war’s strategy: some of the “successes” different countries achieved could be attributed to bribes rather than battlefield victories.

The Sarobi massacre spurred a larger debate in France about the war. Despite growing opposition to their involvement, the French military deepened its commitment to Kapisa. After taking over from the U.S., which exercised partial control over the province for several years beforehand, the French continued to follow the U.S.-led approach of sending troops through an area to kill or chase away militants. Like the American military, the French never developed a solid plan for consolidating their victories and building on successes – which left many areas of Kapisa in a constant tug-of-war between the French and the Taliban.

In many ways, the French were even more aggressive than the U.S. military. At the end of 2008, they did raided more people’s homes, arrested more people, and engaged in more combat than their American predecessors. They were motivated both by a desire to prove themselves as a competent military, as well as the need to avenge the slaughter of so many soldiers.

It didn’t work, however: there was an uptick in violence and the residents of Kapisa were unhappy with and terrified of the French. When a new commander took over in 2009, the French softened and narrowed their approach: they shifted their focus to collaborating with locals and building local infrastructure before their eventual withdrawal.

The first campaign under the new approach, which aimed to retake an eastern district called Alasay that the Taliban has controlled for the previous year, was a smashing success: thanks to some ground work reaching out to locals beforehand, they retook the entire valley with a single casualty over a single day of fighting. Almost immediately, the Afghans of the valley welcomed the French, and things seemed to be looking up. A colleague said in an email to me at the time, “It will be very hard for the TB to reassert themselves if we stay.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t stay. Much as in previous efforts to “sweep” the province, the French were dragged into other tasks, like protecting the main highway that travels the province from north to south through the volatile Tagab Valley. As a result, Alasay fell back to Taliban later that year and the security situation in the province more or less reset itself. It was that same tug-of-war all over again, with the residents of Alasay left frustrated and less safe than ever before.

As 2009 progressed, bigger and bigger chunks of the province came under the sway of the insurgency, leading an NGO worker in the area to lament to me that even the provincial capital was more or less under curfew from the militants. By 2010, another colleague there had reported to me that the French had stopped liaising with their Afghan Army counterparts, and the Provincial Reconstruction Team had ceased most of its operations.

The French military’s growing frustration with their inability to make progress resulted in tensions with the Afghans they were meant to support, and a breakdown in cooperation with the PRT. Nevertheless, the French military leadership continued to tell journalists a happy, misleading story about how wonderful everything was, even as provincial officials were being arrested for having ties to the insurgency. It was a mess.

When a veiled suicide bomber killed four French soldiers over this past weekend, it barely registered in U.S. media. This bombing took place in a central district called Nijrab – an area I used to be able to walk around freely, without body armor. Within France, however, the suicide bombing resonated deeply: while President Hollande had before indicated that he might keep some French troops in the country to help with the training mission, he recently announced a full withdrawal by July of this year.

The early French withdrawal from Kapisa will create a security vacuum just outside of Kabul. This is no small matter: the “ring of steel” that surrounds Afghanistan’s capital has been broken so many times that few have faith in the capital’s safety anymore. Furthermore, many of those attacks are the work of the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group closely affiliated with the Taliban and headquartered in Pakistan. Several of those early attacks, before the influx of French troops, were planned and supported out of the Tagab Valley, in Kapisa Province. The French presence there had reduced the ability of militants in Kapisa to launch attacks into Kabul. When the French leave, the U.S. won’t have the troops to fill in the gap, leaving a big opportunity for militants north of Kabul to strike back.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, for U.S. policymakers. Ambition has its place in warfare, but only if it can be backed up by commitment. While the U.S. has certainly been ambitious in Afghanistan it has never really committed to the war or to its success – and that is why it has faced such disappointment and frustration. It is also why, in 18 months, whoever the next president is will be doing exactly what François Hollande is doing now: withdrawing and trying to move on.