Has France lost Afghanistan?

According to an op-ed written by Joshua Foust, the French mission in Afghanistan is a mess: too ambitious, with not enough resources and a lack of strategy. The admission of failure is harsh, especially from an  author who knows the province of Kapisa (the focal point for French operations), where he was deployed as a contractor for the U.S. Army’s Humain Terrain System in 2009. He has also written some well-informed posts about the French presence in Afghanistan on the collaborative blog Registan. We will, however, make some observations in order to add some nuance to his critique.

The recent suicide bombing in the Nijrab district, the tragic “green on blue” attack against French military mentors in January 2012 and daily troops-in-contact during the last su mmer months confim the finding: Kapisa province isn’t safe, in spite of  important efforts and 87 French military deaths (and some 700 wounded) in combat there since 2001. Despite the French political and military storytelling or strategic communication effort, Kapisa won’t be safe when the complete withdrawal of French “combat troops” in Kapisa province and Surobi district from July through December 2012 is achieved. Only “combat troops” – a euphemism and a semantic, not operational, distinction – will be withdrawn, as Canada and the Netherlands did before, and not all French troops, as Foust indicated in his article.

Military cooperation efforts will continue, with more or less 400 troops remaining in-country for initial training, specialized training at the Armor Branch School or at the Command and Staff College, and as embedded mentors. The renowned French military hospital in Kabul will also stay a few months with logistical troops then conveying all of the equipment to France. Military and civilian cooperation is stated in the long-term Friendship and Partnership treaty signed on January 27, soon to be ratified by both the French and Afghan parliament.

Security Force Assistance through OMLT, POMLT or the new AT (Advisory Teams) has been depicted as the main priority for the French military action for many years. In the French area of operations, all Afghan kandaks (battalions) and coys (compagnies) had for example a mentor team (or a partnership Infantry company), unlike their American counterparts and allies in many districts. Even if the Afghan Army 3rd Brigade of the 201st Corps isn’t autonomous in the province, there is hope for its future after many years of « advise and assist » efforts. It’s also the case for ANCOP units (Afghan National Civil Order Police), a military force with police duties trained mainly by the French Gendarmerie. The U.S. military is very interested in these specific forces that meet current operational needs. Nevertheless, the rise of ANCOP capabilities started very late (after 2006, and especially after 2009).

In our opinion, the main fault of the French military approach was to change priorities every six months or year: moving from specific geographical objectives (like the Alassay valley) to development project (as the Main Supply Road or MSR Vermont from Kabul to Jalalabad) to special “domestic policy’ objectives” (stay in your Forward Operating Bases and have no soldiers killed). But reasons for these changes don’t come only from French political or military commanders. For example, French soldiers were forced to abandon areas at the end of 2010 and early 2011 to focus on securing the MSR Vermont. In fact, the Regional Command-East (RC-East) ordered that MSR Vermont’s safety had to be the priority . However, Task Force La Fayette, which includes the French troops, didn’t have enough resources to achieve simultaneous goals. A crisis of confidence emerged between the American Command and the French troops. The same thing has happened to the British Army in Helmand before the hand over of their FOB to U.S. Marines. A more “kinetic approach” has since been implemented by the French Army, perhaps highlighting the end of the “French touch” approach and its « branding« . The “French Touch” would be a specific warfare, a characteristic of the French strategic culture (a scientific concept sometimes called into question). It built mainly through the French colonial legacy, particularly in Indochina and in Africa, and characterized by restriction on the use of force, contact with local populations, operating with foreign armies, etc. The ”French Touch” evolved (or even disappeared…) in Afghanistan after ten years in contact with other strategical cultures or operational habits. “Operational pause” decided by the political authority at the end of 2010 is also an “external” explanation for the variations of military activities. Several operations were canceled during a three-month period to locate and free two French journalists hostage in the province.

On the other hand, the situation in the Kapisa province should be compared to the overall situation in Afghanistan with, among others parameters, a special effort made on the part of the Taliban and its allies to stage complex and spectacular attacks in Kabul. Kapisa province is a crossing point from the Pakistani border regions where some of these attacks have been prepared. Accordingly, this province became a more strategic and disputed area, meaning the deterioration in security is partially due to increased Taliban and Haqqani Network operations in the province. Second, local actors have been moving fast in order to prepare the period following the withdrawal after 2014 (maybe after 2013, with the new calendar of the French withdrawal). These local political actors (like local insurgents groups) should be more visible for the political internal game… and more active, sometimes, through spectacular attacks. In some ways, the situation in Kapisa is a good summary for the Afghan transition process and a good example for the challenges ahead for all of Afghanistan’s partners, not just France.

With regards to internal obstacles, integrating civilian and military efforts has proved  unsuccessful and frustrating in the long run. The role played by the French in support of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) has remained insufficient. Nevertheless, one has to notice the specific approach outlined by colonel Francis Chanson, then-Commander of Task Force Korrigan manned by the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, between June and November 2009. In a report (only in French) leaked to journalists accompanying then-Minister of Defense Hervé Morin, Colonel Chanson explained the particular challenges in his area of operation, in addition to making some recommendations and tactical adjustments. Rather than relying on brute force in order to clean the valleys in the Province, TF Korrigan organized its maneuvers around the road they planned to build. Thus, Colonel Chanson deemed it possible to both engage the population through its local elites by building a consensus based on shared interests and force the insurgents to attack the road, then becoming easy targets for French forces. Unfortunately, that original experience, drawing on previous attempts by US units in Kunar Province in 2005-2006, lasted a mere six months, due to the rotation cycle between French battalions. The structural problems surrounding relations between French units and PRT members have demonstrated the tactical limits of operating under a vague and fuzzy political goals. That said, French commanders have done their best in order to improve the cooperation and the coordination with other agencies and with local organizations. Drawing on their experience, they were able to grasp the fundamentals of counterinsurgency. Nevertheless, being a set of tactics that can not in any way replace an overall strategy for the war effort, that proved insufficient.

Finally, French troops had during many years (and maybe it’s still “on”) a sole national caveat who ban kill raids. Accordingly, U.S. Special Forces operated in Kapisa province to do that, often independently and without coordination with French conventional troops. Even if the French troops had a kinetic approach, it has always been hampered by that point. This operational restriction allowed only “capture operations” (even with self-defense response, this expression is sometimes an euphemism).

It’s difficult to conclude that the French 10 years deployment in Afghanistan is a success. There was some hope at the beginning, and in the end too much disappointment. As with other contributing nations from the coalition, some brillant tactics don’t replace a strategy, either at the national level or at the provincial level.

By S. Taillat/ En Vérité et F. de St Victor / Mars Attaque
Thanks to Andrew Lebovitch (@tweetsintheME / al-Wasat contributor) for his final read-trough
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