President Barack Obama’s announcement last June of an accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan reopened debates in many European countries over when their soldiers should return from that unpopular war. French President Nicolas Sarkozy followed a few days later with an announcement that French troops would be reduced “in a proportional manner and in a calendar comparable to the withdrawal of American reinforcements.” Now, the tables have turned. With last week’s announcement, it was France that reset the transition calendar, arguing that progress in the transition allowed for the withdrawal of 1,000 French troops by the end of 2012. Although many U.S., Afghan, and NATO observers were initially critical, the Obama administration announced only a few days later that the United States also planned to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013 and shift primarily to advising Afghan forces.
Both Sarkozy’s and Obama’s calls for a speedier NATO exit from Afghanistan reflect the depth of war fatigue in the West, the unpopularity of the Afghan war, and the relentless budgetary and political pressures leaders face to bring their troops home early. As Obama put it in his June 2011 speech on Afghanistan, “it is time to focus on nation building here at home,” a sentiment shared by many in Europe. The French military engagement in Afghanistan has always been perceived in France as a “war of solidarity” without clearly defined strategic objectives, aimed at repairing U.S.-French relations after France’s refusal to participate in the coalition against Iraq in 2003. Coming just three months before the election, Sarkozy’s announcement reflects a compromise between the Lisbon NATO consensus and his presidential campaign rival Francois Hollande’s promise of ending the French military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2012. But in fact, both dates are unrealistic considering the unpreparedness of the Afghan security forces to lead coalition forces and the overreliance of the Afghan government on external assistance.
Indeed, the argument that progress has been made in Afghanistan is disputable. Today, in the province of Kapisa, Afghan representatives recognize that their security forces are not ready to assume the responsibilities of the coalition. Growing anti-Western sentiments, stemming from a serious trust deficit between Afghans and coalition forces and combined with the operational unpreparedness of Afghan forces, a weak central government, and the Taliban’s high morale, raise serious questions about the post-2014 role of the United States and its allies. A series of recent incidents in which Afghan troops have turned on their Western allies confirms the failure of the counterinsurgency and “winning hearts and minds” tactics deployed in Afghanistan over the last few years, as well as the flaws in the training mission in the absence of a legitimate central authority.
The coalition’s decade of military engagement in Afghanistan is a story of constant oscillation between three strategies that were never really connected. After a phase of “Americanization” of the Afghan war through the surge, and a phase of “internationalization” with the increase in coalition members’ contributions and assistance, “Afghanization” or the “transition” phase involving the training of local security forces has become the central pillar of the coalition’s exit strategy. But when the strategy becomes about exiting, the strategy of the weak prevails in setting the international calendar and the narrative. In fact, as both the French and American decisions illustrate, the gradual foreign troop reductions have mostly been in response to forces other than security progress in Afghanistan.