France’s declaration of war on al-Qaeda is merely a public statement of fact: France takes counterterrorism seriously. Following last weekend’s statement from al-Qaeda that it had murdered a septuagenarian French aid worker, Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared “war.” French troops have since attacked al-Qaeda bases in North Africa and ramped up cooperation with Paris’s regional allies.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy should translate this public show of strength to France’s other theater of war against Islamist terrorists: Afghanistan. France has been just one of several European countries to under-resource the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. They have provided too few troops with too many national caveats on their deployments, and in 2007, Paris turned down a NATO request for desperately needed additional helicopters. When President Obama outlined the alliance’s new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan in December and requested a European show of support, Sarkozy grossly undercut Obama by announcing that he would not send “a single soldier more” to Afghanistan.
France’s declaration of war on al-Qaeda also stands incongruously with its shrinking defense budget. Across Europe, defense ministers are claiming that military cooperation with their European allies will increase capacity and allow for deep cuts to their defense budgets. Although efficiency savings are certainly there to be found, this is mostly wishful thinking in an effort to rationalize the further gutting of woeful under-spending on national defense.
On September 12, 2001, France essentially joined its NATO allies in declaring war on al-Qaeda when it voted in favor of the Washington Treaty’s first—and only—invocation of the Article 5 collective defense guarantee. A public declaration of war in North Africa is a political demonstration of support, but that should translate into a more strategic approach to this generation-long war on terrorism, a war in which Afghanistan remains the central front.