With the next French presidential elections now just around the corner, the war in Afghanistan has become a focal point in France. It has been very costly of late for French troops stationed there, losing twelve of the four thousand active troops since the beginning of June 2011. These losses have bolstered anti-war sentiment in France, and may be a reason for President Sarkozy’s impromptu visit to Afghanistan.
A fragile stability exists in Afghanistan, which has not been helped by the assassination of the Afghani President’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai. Casualties continue to build on both sides of the conflict, and the last few months have been hard for French troops. Friendly fire claimed the life of one soldier, while more recent deaths have been attributed to a suicide bombing, which killed five soldiers. There was another casualty to hostile fire the following day.
President Sarkozi made a five-hour surprise visit to Afghanistan, visiting troops at the 152nd Infantry Regiment base in the region of Surobi, meeting with President Hamid Karzai, and also spending time with General David Petraeus. This marks the third trip to Afghanistan for Sarkozy in his four years as president, and it carried with it a certain direction for France’s involvement in the conflict. A thousand French troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of 2012, with no “combat units” left in the country after 2014. The withdrawal is surely a response to US President Obama’s move to withdraw ten thousand troops by the end of this year, and a further twenty-three thousand by the end of 2012.
The twelve casualties in the last month-and-a half represent a little less than 20 per cent of France’s seventy casualties in the decade-long conflict. Such a significant loss in a short space of time has sparked an even greater “anti-war in Afghanistan” sentiment. It has also provided ammunition for Sarkozy’s opponents in the upcoming 2012 presidential elections. According to opinion polls, between half and three-quarters of the French voting public are against their country’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, a sentiment that will surely weigh heavily on President Sarkozy’s shoulders.
An emergency Cabinet meeting was held on the Bastille Day holiday, after President Sarkozy’s return from Afghanistan. French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said that the meeting resulted in plans for French army chief, General Elrick Irastorza, to be sent immediately to Afghanistan to review the situation, and report back to the President within a week. Although Minister Longuet insisted that French troops would continue their training of Afghani security forces, military commanders in Afghanistan are concerned about the effect that politically-driven early withdrawals may have on their ability to cement the transformations that are currently taking place there.
Military decisions are being influenced by the looming financial crisis threatening Europe. France and Germany are considered major financial “foundations” in Europe but, given France’s heavy involvement in overseas operations, the economic burden is significant. France’s involvement in Libya alone, exceeded only by the United States and the United Kingdom, is weighing heavily on the economy. France has announced that it will follow the trend of austerity measures being implemented around Europe, a plan which will reduce spending by forty-five billion euros by 2013. The €3.5 billion to be cut from defence spending may well be influencing the decisions on troop withdrawals and general military involvement abroad.
Future Directions International Associate
Indian Ocean Research Programme