President Obama has announced his decision to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year and 23,000 in 2012. For the U.S. president, the elimination of Osama bin Laden and two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s leaders, the untenable cost of the conflict ($118 billion this year alone), and the relative success of recent operations mark a turning point in the war that began in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
Motivated mainly by considerations of domestic politics, the decision seems to have little connection to the logic of the counterinsurgency strategy prevailing since 2009. This strategy, coupled with a marked increase in Special Forces operations and drone strikes in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, has undoubtedly contributed to a weakening of the insurgents.
The Taliban have been forced to reduce their hold on the south. The reconstruction effort — notably of the Afghan security forces, along with the justice system and local governance — has improved, albeit insufficiently. Moreover, the Americans have recognized the need for making preliminary contacts with the Taliban that may lead to peace negotiations.
The insurgents have not thrown in the towel, but they’ve adapted their tactics — counterattacking in the eastern border region of Pakistan and intensifying urban suicide operations, which generate major media coverage.
The United States and its allies cannot relax their efforts. Progress remains fragile and must be consolidated while the Americans accelerate the political process needed to bring about a resolution.
What can France do to help? First, we must ensure a strict adherence to our commitments. We intervened early on in Afghanistan, in support of the United States. We acted to defend our security interests, which were threatened by a state that had become a haven for international terrorism, and also to promote the humanistic values at the heart of our foreign policy.
Now, as France begins a phased pullback of the 4,000 soldiers it has contributed to the allied effort, the nature of our intervention should evolve. Military action, under U.S. command, should give way to the training of Afghan security forces. The reconstruction effort should continue in areas where we have a presence — education, health, agriculture, justice and rule of law.
This will certainly necessitate the maintenance of a reduced civil and military contingent. Too rapid a departure would be out of the question, given that our presence in the eyes of our allies, especially the Americans and the British, demonstrates our renewed commitment to the Atlantic alliance and our status as a pillar of a European defense system still under development. Had it not been for this, military cooperation agreements would never have been signed with Britain in November 2010.
What contribution can France and the Europeans make to a political settlement in Afghanistan?
Even at this early stage, peace negotiations cannot stay solely in the hands of the United States and Pakistan, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Europeans should be as closely associated to the peace as they have been to the war. France should take the initiative in conjunction with the British and the Germans, tying in the European Union. This arrangement, honed in negotiations with Iran, would give us the flexibility to pursue our interests and views. Europeans — France and Germany in particular — are viewed as disinterested actors in Afghanistan and the region, detached from any imperialist ambitions.
Similarly, we cannot be entirely detached from the regional dimension. Any lasting stabilization of Afghanistan requires a solution to the crisis in Pakistan. The long relationship between Pakistan and the United States is of central importance, but it has been polluted by a history of reciprocal mistrust and misunderstanding. The United States is obviously the key, but an emotionally charged, exclusive dialogue between Washington and Islamabad would not lead to a satisfactory outcome.
Only a broadening of the dialogue, bringing together neighboring countries, regional actors and the major powers to deal with all the issues — including regional security, cross-border cooperation, trade, technological cooperation, economic development, and energy issues, including civil nuclear power — can lead to a successful conclusion.
Pakistan’s military officials should be involved in these negotiations. This is a prerequisite for its success. Talks should also include countries that play an active role in Afghan politics (Iran, India and Pakistan) and in Pakistan (China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey).
France and Europe must take the lead, but without harboring any illusions concerning the difficulties involved and the time required in undertaking such a project. After all, the effort is not dissimilar to the Helsinki process of the early 1970s, which eventually led to the thawing of East-West relations.
Jean d’Amécourt, France’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011 and before that under secretary of defense for policy.