Obama’s ‘Surge Strategy’ in AfPak: the French Perspective

On 27 March 2009, President Barack Obama announced his new Af-Pak strategy that includes the dismantling, disruption, and the defeat of al Qaeda and preventing the resurgence of the Taliban. He declared that peace in the region is essential for peace in the world. The means put in disposition to achieve this goal incorporate additional US troops and building a more efficient Afghan army and police. By 2011, he hopes to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000, at which point, Afghans would be responsible for their security.
France supports Obama’s new strategy. According to a French Official, France has been following a similar strategy since 2003. Indeed, France has been involved in Afghanistan since the 1920s, when they first opened French schools. Ever since, it has been engaged through the EU, UN and NATO through: University exchange programs in the 1960s; the inauguration of a French hospital in 2006; France trained 4,200 Afghan soldiers through Operation Epidote (2007), and an Internal Security Attaché was put in charge to over-see police training (2003); also a Franco-German initiative was launched to train Afghan judges and magistrates (2007); and France supported the construction of an Parliament through the EC and UNDP.

From an official viewpoint, France supports the new Af-Pak strategy, and has been promoting a regional approach to the war involving not just Pakistan, as demonstrated at the 2010 London Conference. A few months after the nomination of Richard Holbrooke, President Sarkozy nominated Pierre Lellouche in March 2009 as the Special Envoy to Afghanistan/Central Asia. His duties focused on economic growth, rural and agricultural development, police training, and regional dialogue for the future of Afghanistan and the region, which was later followed by Thierry Mariani.

In his new strategy, Obama requested Allies to provide an addition 5000–7000 troops. England sent 500, and Germany sent 850 additional troops, while France declined. France, however, did send 80 gendarmes to train the Afghan gendarmes last February. Since 2007, France has doubled its troops, totaling today at about 3,800, compared to the UK’s 10,000 and Germany’s 5,300.

France’s refusal is based on the perceptual failure of the UN to provide adequate coordination and transparency, leading to inefficient use of aid money and widespread corruption, therefore making the situation counter-productive and even worse. There are clear difficulties for the distribution of aid money in the Afghan society, due to the lack of infrastructure, therefore many donor countries have preferred to create their own aid projects, which are based on national interests, not on Afghan priorities.

The French government would rather focus on the amelioration of the initial situation; therefore it is concentrating on trying to make the international presence more efficient. Furthermore, France unlike other countries does not mention an exit strategy; on the contrary has stated that it would stay as long as needed in the country.

Alternatively, Etienne De Durand from the Institut Francais des Relations Internationals thinks that the French government simply does not want to get more involved in Afghanistan because it is not a priority. The government has great internal issues, during the March regional election, in which the President’s party, Union du Mouvement Populaire(UMP), lost 21 out of 22 regions to the Socialist Party. President Sarkozy and the UMP lost people’s trust due to both national and international policies. Consequently, the government’s decision of not sending more troops is a rational internal political decision because it would fuel partisan debates and could further weaken the government.

Although, De Durand agrees with the government’s criticism of the UN and the aid money, he believes that France is being “stingy” about providing both physical and financial aid in regards to other countries.

Furthermore, De Durand believes that Sarkozy’s declaration of support to Obama at the 2009 NATO summit is a “support by principle” on defense. It is only a superficial declaration to show that NATO members are united and standing together against terrorism. Since France is not sending any troops, De Durand believes that France is “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.”

France supports the new Af-Pak strategy because it understands that terrorism is an international phenomenon threatening world peace. France’s decision not to send any troops whether based on the idea to focus on a more efficient civilian power, or due to stinginess and lack of political will, undermines the deterioration in the Af-Pak region. No one doubts the righteousness of the war, but prevailing corruption in the aid projects are clearly restraining NATO’s mission.

In making a decision to send troops; the status of Afghan forces, the current political situation and the capabilities required have to be taken into account. For the French government, sending more troops will not solve the problems of coordination and aid implication, while for De Durand, the French government deems it too risky to participate more than it already has. France supports Obama’s new strategy but its inability or unwillingness to contribute more troops presents two divergent perspectives about French support: one in theory and one in practice.