May 7, 2012

Measuring French Aftershocks In Afghanistan

The cause of President Barack Obama's recent speech in Afghanistan is found nowhere in its lines and everywhere in between.

After highlighting the death of Osama bin Laden, the erosion of al-Qaeda's Pakistani core and the Taliban's "broken" momentum, Obama laid out a persistently vague strategy intended to appease both the left and right electorates. NATO's plan will transfer control of all provinces to Afghan security forces in 2014, the keystone step to shrinking America's military footprint, while leaving an undisclosed number of U.S. troops and bases in the country through 2024. Just like his attempt to split the electorate with a lite surge, Obama hopes to win supporters on both sides by giving them half of what they want. This strategy has paid dividends since the American populace is evenly divided over his handling of the war, but oppositional sentiments cannot be concealed so easily during counterinsurgency.

The latest polls suggest that two thirds of Americans oppose the Obama administration's new 10-year pact with Afghanistan's government. 53% of respondents told the latest Rasmussen report that they favor an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Now Obama faces a subdued version of his optimistic Chicago summit as he confronts these figures on an international scale. With France in need of an economic correction, an electorate that largely opposes its involvement in Afghanistan voted Socialist François Hollande into office on Sunday. Hollande's promise to withdraw by December 2012, coupled with a high-profile "green on blue" incident against four French soldiers, would force outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy to accelerate Paris's deadline from 2014 to 2013. Until further notice, Hollande's advisors believe that the withdrawal of 3,600 troops and 1,200 vehicles (including 500 armored vehicles and 14 helicopters) can be completed within eight months.

He's also standing on a platform that cannot be readily assailed by NATO.

"The first duty of the president of the Republic is to bring together and link all citizens to communal action so as to face up to the challenges awaiting us, and there are many and they are heavy: First of all, to increase production in order to get the country out of the crisis, reducing our deficit in order to control debt, the preservation of our social model to ensure to all the same, equal access to public services."

Hollande's language isn't so different from Obama's weekly address on Afghanistan and the U.S. economy: "As we look towards that future, we must also focus on the type of nation our troops return to. This is why the President called on Congress to take the money we are no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the other half to rebuild America. It’s time for America to make the choices that ensure a strong middle class where everyone a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.”

Not coincidentally, NATO's reaction to Sarkozy's course adjustment is markedly similar to the statements directed at Hollande. First comes the pressure to walk NATO's timeline, which U.S. officials relayed to Sarkozy after he started to veer out of bounds in January. France's national decisions must be respected, so the argument goes, but "the alliance as a whole is working on 2014." The Obama administration wasted no time sending this message to Hollande: "President Obama noted that he will welcome President-elect Hollande to Camp David for the G-8 Summit and to Chicago for the NATO Summit later this month, and proposed that they meet beforehand at the White House." One can easily guess what direction this conversation will travel; for his part, Hollande revealed that he "meticulously" prepared for NATO's summit during the election and expects resistance from the alliance.

Next comes an unsurprised attitude designed to minimize the public perception of a fraying alliance. Some U.S., NATO and Afghan officials have already expressed skepticism that Hollande can keep his campaign promise, while others are downplaying France's significance. One senior NATO official said that the alliance's military planners "are paying attention to various nations and political situations all the time" - an awareness that focuses on and ignores international opinion in one statement. He insisted that NATO had prepared for Hollande's victory and that France's withdrawal would create minimal disturbances in Afghanistan's transitional plans.

Due to these factors and many others, the ramifications of Hollande's election are difficult to gauge with certainty. NATO officials may correctly assume that France's exit, like Canada's in 2011, will leave Afghanistan's battlefield in the same condition. U.S. troops remain the predominate force and only their shrinking numbers will affecf NATO's military capacity. Or Hollande could retreat from his promise and stray into 2013, negating any permanent friction. However Sarkozy's initial plan to withdraw by 2013 generated its own troubles - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta played into oppositional demands by speculating on the end "combat operations" - and Hollande's campaign promise appears too big to fail.

The worst-scenario is unlikely to develop, but it starts with the present situation. NATO's four largest contributors after America - Britain, Germany, France and Italy - have deployed roughly 22,000 out of 42,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. All four countries share high disapproval figures that have been chronically mismanaged by their governments. A run on their numbers would cripple NATO's fighting force and potentially impair training missions with Afghans. Spain and Australia, two other anti-war hotspots, could also leave with another 3,000 troops. At this point the resentment within NATO could overtake its military collateral.

Hollande has worked to assuage the Obama administration's concerns in Afghanistan and pledged to minimize the danger to NATO allies, efforts that should contain any immediate military fallout. The psychological damage of a middle option appears probable: France's decision will influence some NATO members to accelerate their exits and add uncertainty to the war's overall transition. The Taliban will manipulate NATO withdrawal to their own propaganda ends and exploit any potential gaps in the north. NATO itself could experience exit pains as its command reallocates the burden of forces. Hollande speaks with the same admiration as Obama, telling reporters that he will "assert France's independence without making things difficult for Barack Obama."

The outcome of this meeting, though, won't be as clean as the administration's friendly invitation

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