At first Nicholas Sarkozy’s rhetoric sounded relatively harmless.
Pressured by an impending election, challenger Francois Hollande and chronically low approval for war in Afghanistan, France’s incumbent Prime Minister needed to make up some ground. Hollande has pledged to withdrawal all troops from Afghanistan and, sensing an opportunity to close the gap, Sarkozy utilized the deaths of four French soldiers (shot by a Taliban infiltrator) to float his own accelerated withdrawal. The premier initially backed off from his expedient reaction last Tuesday, when Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told Parliament that Sarkozy would make a decision after meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Paris.
Pointing out a “clear distinction” between “organized withdrawal and rushed withdrawal," Juppe promised that his government “will not give in to panic.” Except Sarkozy is now generating this sensation in Afghanistan, Washington and NATO capitals after closing ranks with Karzai. His current plan would bring 1,000 of France’s 3,900 troops home in 2012 and accelerate the final withdrawal from 2014 to 2013. "A few hundred" advisers would remain in the country.
"The pursuit of the transition and this gradual transfer of combat responsibilities will allow us to plan for a return of all our combat forces by the end of 2013," he said on Friday.
What Sarkozy fails to address in depth is the disproportionate effects of his words and actions. The immediate military upshot could first manifest in Kapisa, where Sarkozy promised to transfer French control by March instead of late 2012. The Taliban is almost certain to mount an offensive in the vulnerable province, a possibility that could dampen NATO’s overall transfer of the country. Afghanistan’s provincial and national levels could then become trapped in a mutual cycle of violence and propaganda typical of fourth-generation warfare (4GW).
For their part, U.S. officials realize that Sarkozy’s primary damage was inflicted in the political sphere, not on the battlefield. Withdrawal is already unpopular with conservatives and President Barack Obama cannot accelerate based on French politics - even if both capitals may share the same political boat. Reactions range from terse to approving; U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings insisted that "ISAF sees no effects to our current campaign plan.” Similarly, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland argued that Washington knew about Sarkozy’s change of course prior to the incident in Kapisa. Citing Sarkozy’s meeting with Karzai, she claimed that “this timetable was worked through both with the Afghans and with NATO as part of our collective process...”
“So this was a national decision of France. It was done in a managed way. We will all work with it. As the President has said with regard to our own presence, we are working on 2014. The alliance as a whole is working on 2014, but we are also going to work within this French decision.”
These comments indicate that the Obama administration is more worried than it publicly admits. An honest reaction was delivered by NATO’s own Secretary General, who warned Paris to make its decision “following consultations with commanders and ISAF partners.” Anders Fogh Rasmussen also told reporters, "It's important to the success of the operation that we maintain a commitment to this agreed plan.” The main threat of Sarkozy’s plan is overwhelmingly political in nature, and a textbook example of the dilemmas created by guerrilla warfare. Unwilling to be seen as acting in isolation, France’s premier also says he will use next month's NATO summit to accelerate its entire transfer.
"We have decided in a common accord with President Karzai to ask NATO to consider a total handling of NATO combat missions to the Afghan army over the course of 2013," Sarkozy said.
As the situation currently stands, France’s government would undertake a politically expedient decision with no basis in reality. Although the transfer of authority should occur as quickly as possible - many Afghans want foreign troops out of the country ASAP - much of Afghanistan remains unprepared for authorities to govern or police. This exchange cannot occur within two years. Of equal importance, Afghans won’t be leading Special Forces raids when 2014 dawns on the horizon. Karzai did qualify his conditions, saying 2013 marked the “earliest” deadline, but Sarkozy’s political damage is already being felt in Afghanistan’s provinces and capital.
Time will reveal the effects of Sarkozy’s reaction on NATO’s own coalition. Intense U.S. pressure is already being applied in order to keep the coalition from openly dividing, while British Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to establish a middle ground by relating to Paris: “Obviously, between now and 2014 there will be opportunities for different countries to reduce their troop numbers. Britain has reduced our troop numbers over the last year.”
However Cameron advised Sarkozy to act within NATO’s common perimeters, saying the rate of withdrawal and provincial transfers “should be the same for all of the members of NATO.”
Problematically for NATO, no contributing country enjoys a majority consensus on Afghanistan. The war is particularly unpopular in France, England, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia, unnerving other contributors such as Poland. Sarkozy has effectively poisoned the well by unilaterally announcing a divisive proposal, one with significant approval in Western households. This damage is left to expand in all directions, starting with Afghanistan's provincial security and reverberating nationally by impairing the perceptions of Afghans. Boosting Taliban morale in the field is likely to be dwarfed by a propaganda campaign directed at NATO’s “weakness.”
Sarkozy’s rhetoric has opened Pandora’s Box a little wider. A concerted NATO effort is required to prevent France’s actions from becoming a systemic threat to the mission in Afghanistan.