In France, voters have ushered out one of America’s closest strategic allies and voted in a new president, François Hollande, who promised during the campaign to pull out France’s remaining 3,500 soldiers from the NATO mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2012.
Afghan officials in Kabul put on a brave face at this news, saying that Afghanistan was ready to take on its own security arrangements. In any case, officials pointed out that there are many other NATO member nations in Afghanistan, and NATO isn't leaving anytime soon.
"For us, a NATO stance is more important than individual decisions by individual nations," Afghan Defense Ministry Spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told Agence France-Presse. "And Afghanistan is well prepared to take over all security responsibilities in 2013."
Yet as the fighting season begins in Afghanistan, and as Afghans fret about their country’s future once NATO forces pull out after 2014, the election of a French president who favors withdrawal is likely to be a troubling sign. And it is likely to give fellow NATO members such as the United States – which signed its own separate security compact with Afghanistan last week – a few new complications to sort out.
France is one of the largest countries in Europe, but its contribution to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan – the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – is relatively small: just 3,300 troops compared with the United States’ 90,000 soldiers, or Britain’s 9,500 soldiers. But there is a vast difference between the effect of an orderly withdrawal and a hasty one. An orderly withdrawal is one in which duties and responsibilities are handed off to either the host country or to another foreign peacekeeping force. A disorderly departure inspires panic, and images of helicopters on the roof of an embassy.
The very fact that France had troops in Afghanistan is due largely to the efforts of France’s departing President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the most America-friendly presidents since World War II. Mr. Sarkozy chose in 2009 to reintegrate French troops into NATO after a decades-long absence, and promptly urged their use both in Afghanistan and also during the NATO air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya last year.
Sarkozy also signaled a rupture with France’s past policy of interventionism among its former colonies in Africa, although that promise lasted about as long as a day-old croissant. French troops intervened in Ivory Coast in early 2011 to help capture incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to step down from power after losing the Nov. 2010 elections to Alessane Ouattara.
While the French public never did particularly warm to the notion of French troops in Afghanistan, the Monitor’s Robert Marquand reported in April 2011 that French public opinion seemed to be in support of operations in Libya and Ivory Coast, two countries France has typically kept within its sphere of influence.
The election of Hollande, by all accounts, has more to do with public discontent over Sarkozy’s handling of the sluggish economy than it does with French foreign policy. But withdrawal from Afghanistan is popular. Even Sarkozy himself, during a January 2012 visit to Kabul, suggested that France would push NATO to hand over combat operations to Afghan control in 2013.
“We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handing of NATO combat missions to the Afghan Army over the course of 2013,” Sarkozy said, adding that France itself would withdraw its troops by the end of 2013.
There may not seem to be a great deal of distance between Sarkozy’s end-of-2013 withdrawal and Hollande’s campaign promise of withdrawal within the next seven months. But French elections may be an indication of a more general disengagement from joint military operations, increasing the burden on the remaining NATO allies there.