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Silent withdrawal

French troops are leaving Afghan­istan faster than Germany’s armed forces do. By the end of this year, the French government wants to withdraw more than half of its deployed soldiers, arguing that the security situation will not be affected.

By Anne Le Troquer

In the campaign for the presidential elections earlier this year, acceler­ating the retreat from Afghanistan was a matter of intense controversy. Today, this policy is considered the first major measure of international relevance taken by François Hollande, the new head of state. On 31 July, the French tricolore was taken down for the last time at the Tora military camp in the Sarobi District east of Kabul. It had been under French command. Only 350 French soldiers and the Afghan troops who replaced them witnessed this scene of great symbolic potential. For security reasons, the event was kept secret.

France has been an ally in the NATO operation Enduring Freedom right from the start. From fall 2001 until the end of 2010, it deployed 4000 troops. In June 2011, Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy said for the first time that they would be incrementally withdrawn, in line with the withdrawal of the US forces, which was set to begin in 2012. Hollande, however, decided to speed up matters. Currently, 2950 French troops are serving in Afghanistan. By the end of December – two years ahead of the official end of the ISAF mission, only 1400 French soldiers will remain there. ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led coalition that is supporting the government in Kabul.

“Our withdrawal will not make a difference,” says a French officer. “Our soldiers have stayed in the barracks for a year, and they only make up about three percent of all ISAF forces.” Other NATO nations have withdrawn from Afghanistan earlier: the Dutch troops left in 2010 and the Canadian troops in 2011.

Most French troops, however, are based in the north-eastern Province of Kapisa, which is considered to be of great strategic relevance. According to soldiers, the valleys of Tagab and Alasay are hard to control, and the Taliban are using them for transit purposes to Pakistan.

Fiftythree French soldiers died in Kapisa, more than half of their nation’s 88 casualties in this conflict. In recent months, things are said to have gotten worse. The ISAF leadership does not trust Afghanistan’s security forces to control Kapisa the way they do in Sarobi. Accordingly, there are plans to replace the French contingent with other ISAF troops until 2014. In this regard, French withdrawal apparently does matter, indeed.

Dubious success

“The truth is that, in this conflict, there has never been a strategy that was shared by all allies,” is the assessment of Jean-Pierre Maulny who works for the think tank IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques). ”The real question is what will happen after 2014 and what will be Afghanistan’s future.” In his view, the country’s security forces will continue to need training, and development cooperation will be indispensable too. “But that, in itself, will not do,” Maulny says, “since corruption and aid dependence today are rooted, among other things, in mismanaged and un-coordi­nated international support for Afghanistan.”

So far, Paris has only committed to a minimum of training security forces and contributing to development cooperation. After 2014, some 500 French soldiers will stay in Kabul for training purposes, and € 230 billion have been pledged for development programmes in the next four years. In May, President Hollande visited Kabul and promised “a more civilian and more business-oriented presence”. He did not elaborate any details, however.

Anne Le Troquer

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