French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent announcement that French troops would hand over their security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2013 — a year earlier than the completion of the NATO combat mission — has caused some to declare that the entire Afghanistan operation is at risk. The French decision certainly reflects Sarkozy’s need to address pressing domestic pressure to bring forces home as his presidential reelection campaign begins. But Sarkozy will have to balance this with the need to maintain France’s reputation within NATO. There will be times when alliance interests will need to trump national interest. The decision must also be put into context. It poses little operational risk, and is by no means a repudiation of the validity of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. What the French decision does reflect is the politics that accompany any coalition mission, however undesirable.
From an operational standpoint, there is no doubt that the 4,000 French troops in Afghanistan, mainly in Kapisa province, have made a difference. French forces have shown acuity in counterinsurgency operations, and French trainers, especially gendarmes, have been critical to increasing the capacity of Afghan National Security Forces. But as with all ISAF nations, the French are now looking at what the expected 2014 transition will mean and how they can best support Afghanistan during this process and beyond. For many states, this will mean a shift away from combat to training operations. Thus, the more important question is what role will France choose to play beyond transition and will it reflect the balance between national and alliance interests ? While France has signed a 20-year strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan to cover security, economic, and political cooperation, it remains unclear what mix of forces France would contribute to a training mission through 2014 and beyond. A firm French commitment at the upcoming NATO summit to provide significant numbers of personnel to NATO and EU training missions would be especially welcome as the planning for a post-2014 Afghanistan continues. Likewise, specified commitments to development projects and expertise to assist the Afghan government in establishing more effective rule of law could have an even greater impact in addressing the strategic vulnerabilities of the Afghan state.
While it is certainly irksome that the French chose not to use the Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board (JANIB) process to work through the timeline on transition in Kapisa, the decision was not a surprise to NATO or Afghan government officials. Indeed, Presidents Karzai and Sarkozy had already agreed to the 2013 timeline in pre-decisional meetings prior to the public announcement. Both NATO and the Afghan government have long expected Kapisa province to transition as part of the third “tranche,” likely to be announced in March 2012. This will give ISAF and Afghan forces plenty of time to fully handover security operations and prepare Kapisa for Afghan leadership. While the pace of the French drawdown has been increased there will still be about 3,000 French troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2012. In short, the French decision is simply a repackaging of the milestones that have been discussed for almost two years now.
Coalitions are, almost by definition, imperfect creatures. They are politically complex and require considerable investment and management to get them to work. Indeed, Napoleon is reported to have said that he’d rather fight against a coalition than as part of one. But it is equally important to recall that it was, in the end, a coalition that defeated Napoleon. The art of leading a successful coalition requires balancing national and alliance interests and an understanding of when to give one way or another. In an age of budget austerity, NATO members must continue to remember that alliances mean shared commitment, shared contributions, and shared sacrifice. In Afghanistan the transition process has also always had an unwritten purpose — to keep the NATO allies and ISAF partners together until the Afghans could lead on their own and it was formulated with an eye towards maintaining sufficient domestic political support in each nation so that force contributions could continue, even if they had to be adjusted over time. Building and maintaining a coalition is not always a pretty process, but it is a necessary one, and in Afghanistan it will be better to win messy than lose pretty.