French President-elect François Hollande campaigned on bringing all French troops home from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Therefore, if this election promise is kept, NATO will have a gap of 3,300 troops to fill in an important area of Afghanistan during an important stage of the campaign.
After a rogue Afghan soldier killed four French soldiers and wounded another 16 in January, Afghanistan became an important campaign issue during the French presidential elections. In order to placate public opinion—which is strongly against the war in Afghanistan—President Nicholas Sarkozy flew to Kabul and promised to pullout 1,000 troops instead of the originally planned 600 by the end of 2012, with the rest of French troops leaving the country by the end of 2013.
Hollande has been a strong opponent of the war in Afghanistan. Only last week he stated: “I believe that, without taking any risks for our troops, it is the right thing to withdraw our combat troops by the end of 2012.” However, the phrase “without taking any risks for our troops” leaves Hollande a bit of flexibility. Considering it is already May, it is unlikely that a full withdrawal of French troops and their equipment could be carried out by end of 2012 without taking huge risks to the safety of the French troops.
It has been pointed out that the French military also has to bring home 1,500 containers filled with equipment as well as 1,200 vehicles, including 500 heavily armored vehicles and 14 helicopters. These numbers are likely to be on the conservative side. Considering that most of the withdrawal will have to be carried out during the height of the summer fighting season, a full withdrawal of French troops will be very risky if the end of 2012 deadline is to be met.
Furthermore, an early French withdrawal presents three immediate problems for NATO. First is the security vacuum that a sudden withdrawal of 3,300 troops would create. This is especially true in a strategically important part of Afghanistan that has been described as the gateway to Kabul.
Secondly, a French withdrawal from Kapisa would also present a political problem with NATO’s transition strategy. NATO troops should end combat operations only in districts and provinces that have transitioned to Afghan security lead. To date, no single district in Kapisa has been selected as part of the transition process. France should not set a precedent by withdrawing troops outside the NATO transition plan.
Thirdly, many European countries are coming under considerable public and political pressure to leave Afghanistan. An early French withdrawal is likely to provide political top cover for other European countries to follow suit. This could jeopardize NATO’s transition strategy.
Hollande will soon have to face his counterparts at the NATO summit in Chicago later this month. He should do the responsible thing and keep French troops in Afghanistan until Kapisa is ready to transition to the Afghans. Otherwise, a reckless rush for the exit could have dangerous consequences—not only for French troops but also for NATO’s strategy.