BY SERENA DAI
When French President Françoise Hollande announced a withdrawal of French combat troops from Afghanistan, NATO officials expressed respect for Hollande’s decision. But some experts fear the withdrawal signals the beginning of a waning alliance by opening doors for other countries to leave early—and in turn, a weakening mission.
“[The French withdrawal] questions the integrity of NATO at the global stage,” said Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at American Enterprise Institute who advises U.S. military officers on terrorism and domestic politics of Afghanistan. “It is the most major combat mission for NATO since its creation. If it fails, it damages NATO’s credibility.”
The French, the fourth largest troop contributor, will leave 1,300 troops in Afghanistan in unspecified non-combat roles, Hollande announced in Kabul a few days after the summit. French combat troops are leaving two years before the rest of NATO. Hollande, standing along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told press in Kabul that the mission had been completed for the French.
Such decisions go against the “in together, out together” mantra that has dominated the Afghanistan operation, said Georgetown University Professor Mark Vlasic, a former White House Fellow and special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
“Every NATO ally is important, and thus it is critical for those in the alliance to ensure their decisions are coordinated in a responsible way,” Vlasic said in an email. “[The French decision] sets an unfortunate precedent, and one that I hope French officials are able to mitigate over time.”
Bucking the mantra sends the wrong signal to enemy forces, too, Majidyar said. He sees newspapers in Pakistan discussing French withdrawal as an admittance of defeat. Majidyar, who thinks the 2014 timeline is more realistic, warns that French combat troops are currently in known insurgent safe havens, and an end of year deadline could be disastrous.
“It creates a vacuum at a very important time,” he said. “Afghan security forces are not able to clear out insurgents in eastern Afghanistan only with help of advisers. It endangers transition period on the whole.”
Nevertheless, NATO officials expressed confidence in France’s role in the mission. General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, told press at the summit that the French’s training and advising would be enough to complete the mission successfully. And Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said all the allies respected Hollande’s decision.
“The important thing is that all Allies and partners will stay committed to our mission throughout the transition period to the end of 2014,” Rasmussen said, “and the French President has confirmed that’s also his position.”
All things considered, France still has a sense of global responsibility—which is difficult to find in Europe outside of the United Kingdom and France, said Leo Michel, a research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies who previously worked in the office of the secretary of defense as director of NATO policy. Hollande wants to maintain a good relationship—military or otherwise—with the United States and NATO, Michel said. The alliance is far from being broken.
“France is not trying to throw roadblocks,” Michel said. “The alliances are always a work in progress. [But] everybody has an interest, in the end, of helping each other and protecting each other.”