France’s Afghan Lessons

French troops in Mali entering a Royal Air Force Chinook heavy lift helicopter, August 2018. Courtesy of Frédéric Marie / Alamy Stock Photo

The Afghanistan debacle carries serious strategic consequences for France and other allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron reacted to the events in Kabul with a brief televised address at the start of the week, as he has done previously on other international subjects. After his intervention in the wake of the explosion in Beirut on 4 August last year, this is the second strong summer intervention by the current occupant of the Élysée. This time, emphasis was placed on the most immediate concerns, and on the measures to be taken quickly: on the morning of 17 August, a French Airbus A400M and special forces arrived in Kabul to assist with evacuations.

But beyond the urgency, as suggested – albeit for the moment sotto voce – in the presidential address, a deeper reflection is required. First, there are the transatlantic lessons to be drawn from the Afghan defeat. Then, from an even more global strategic perspective, there are lessons to be drawn about our relationship with war, military intervention and external action.

Imperatives for France

The immediate priority is, of course, the protection of French nationals, a protection extended by Emmanuel Macron to Afghans who have worked for France. The scenes of chaos broadcast over the past few days put the country’s logistical prowess to the test, and were a serious burden on the French embassy, which transferred to Kabul airport under a barely imaginable state of tension.

Yet beyond the immediate humanitarian urgency, there is another imperative: not to let Afghanistan again become – as it was before September 2001 – a sanctuary from which terrorist operations can be prepared, or where violent groups can train. 

On this point, there are of course no guarantees. The Taliban do not necessarily have an interest in confronting US power head-on, especially as the US has developed even more sophisticated remote strike capabilities since it last defeated the group 20 years ago, in particular through the use of drones. The assumption is that – at least for the time being – the Taliban will seek to reassure its potential rival both within and outside the country, not only to maintain its hold over Afghanistan, but also perhaps to avoid the isolation which afflicted the Taliban ‘emirate’ two decades ago. But over time, and taking into account the possible differences between the movement’s various factions, anything could happen, and neither France alone nor the broader NATO alliance would be able to do much about this.

In addition, there is the problem of a possible migratory surge as a result of the Taliban victory. The widespread scenes of panic may be an indication that the flow of Afghans leaving the country will go far beyond the brain drain one would normally expect in similar situations. Large outward flows are anticipated, and we should expect some countries to ‘weaponise’ such movements, as Belarus is currently doing. After the Syrian episode of 2015, and the difficulties encountered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of previous migratory crises, we know that Western leaders’ room for manoeuvre in this area is narrow.

Atlantic Reflections

The Afghan episode once again raises the question of the role of the transatlantic alliance.

A few minutes after Macron's speech on Monday night, US President Joe Biden spoke. It was a harsh speech, attributing responsibility for the situation to the government and the armed forces of Afghanistan, which proved unable to face the Taliban despite two decades of copious US aid. It was a speech determined to get the US out of wars now deemed unnecessary. It was an oration that was both frank and cynical, one which may be explicable from the point of view of US public opinion and in the context of Washington's diplomatic-military refocusing on the Asia-Pacific and on competition with Beijing. 

But it was also a disturbing speech for the US’s allies. Given its hasty departure from Afghanistan and the abandonment of its former local allies, can the US still claim that the security guarantees it provides are solid and that its word is its bond?

This question had already arisen acutely under former President Barack Obama, when he refused to engage in Syria as France wished, and then publicly regretted having followed Paris into Libya. Under Donald Trump, the abandonment of the Kurdish forces which had helped fight the Islamic State, and the green light given by Washington to Turkey to pursue them, also raised the question of how much confidence could be invested in the word of a US which reserves the right to change its priorities.

In his speech, Biden was clear: there is no longer any question that Afghanistan is dispensable, at a time when China is threatening. What, then, about Ukraine, the Sahel or the Middle East? China is already sensing US weakness and is asking Taiwan: what will you do the day the US abandons you, too? 

Of course, such comparisons are fallacious: there has never been a treaty of alliance between the US and the Afghan population nor, for that matter, one promising to defend Syria. There is no comparison with longstanding treaties and security guarantees which the US remains determined to honour. Still, at least at the psychological level, the argument is unsettling.

There are ripple effects even within NATO, where countries will scrutinise the nuances in the position of allies, and especially the Turkish posture. Beyond this, it will be interesting to follow Saudi and Emirati attitudes to the future of Afghanistan, not to mention the approach taken by Pakistan. So, while US security guarantees remain valid, the fall of Kabul may lead to a redistribution of loyalties in the game of alliances that the US is trying to implement against its new peer competitor, and that in itself could create further ripple effects.

Strategic Reflections

But the harshness of the speech delivered by the 46th US president poses yet another question: that of Western democracies’ commitment to the stability of a region or the reconstruction of a state.

The Afghan fiasco – the almost immediate return to power of the very people whom we drove out 20 years ago, after we had spent 2 trillion US dollars – marks the end of an era: the one opened by the end of the Cold War and then pushed to absurdity by the neoconservative administration of George W Bush during the 2000s, when the West hoped to reshape societies, remake the map of the world, and oversee the establishment of ‘good’ political regimes.

The various partnerships – often taking on paternalistic tones, and subject to annoying conditions – with the new Russia that emerged in the 1990s fostered a feeling of humiliation which was subsequently exploited by Vladimir Putin. After years of China's involvement in the international trade system, Xi Jinping is reinforcing Marxist-Leninist dogma and exploiting trade openness while entrenching his domestic political control. And the EU’s careful and sometimes arrogant checks to verify that Turkey was advancing properly on the path mapped out for it in order to be worthy of having its EU candidacy looked upon with benevolence (which it never really was) laid the foundation for the rejectionist rhetoric of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even without mentioning the ‘results’ of ‘regime change’ efforts in places such as Iraq, Libya or elsewhere during the Arab Spring, the conclusion is clear: failure.

With the fall of Kabul, the hope of the emergence of a new political order after a costly external intervention – one that required a lasting engagement on the ground – has vanished. To be sure, sheer firepower is still needed, but staying power – the ability to stay put – is now out of our reach. 

Just as Britain’s retreat from empire quickly condemned the French colonial presence to history, the US aggiornamento could consign the logic of the ‘long expedition’ to oblivion. France cannot avoid facing this situation with its current policy in the Sahel. But others would do well to think about it too, for the same applies to the Russian intervention in Syria.

After an older – but shorter – fiasco in Somalia, the Clinton Doctrine set a very restrictive definition of the conditions for US intervention abroad. After Afghanistan, Biden’s stance could become another milestone.

In 1993, Samuel Huntington announced a battle of ‘the West against the rest’. The ‘rest’ is proving to be tougher than expected.

This Commentary is adapted from a previous study published by the French-language version of The Conversation website.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Frédéric Charillon

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