Now, President Sarkozy is making heaps of news by promising to get French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013. What does this mean? Well, it means many things, but it is probably not quite as a big of a deal as folks suggest. Why?
- In Together, Out Together is dead and has been for two years. The Dutch left Uruzgan in 2010 after their government collapsed over the extension of the mission. Yes, the Netherlands did deploy a much smaller set of folks to do police training, but only in relatively safe areas (not Southern Afghanistan). Canada left Kandahar last summer as the effort to extend the mission in 2008 had built in the seeds of a commitment to leave in 2011. And, yes, Prime Minister Harper pulled out of nowhere a commitment to return to Afghanistan to train folks, again in safe places--Kabul-centric and behind the wire. [I am presenting a paper in April at the International Studies Association meeting comparing these two cases.] These two countries were leaving a couple of the most important provinces in the country. The big difference is that the US is getting smaller as well, as backfilling with US troops will be harder this time.
- As part of this process, Kapisa, where the French have led and faced significant combat, will be turned over to Afghan authorities, even if it is not ready. Does this somehow alter the transition process? Not as much as portrayed, as Helmand, which has been the most dangerous province, is being already turned over and as Mazeer el-Sharif was transitioned even though it was the site of anti-international community riots in the aftermath of the Koran burning in Florida.
- An important thing to keep in mind is that during this transition process, the NATO forces are not leaving entirely but are trying to give the Afghans leadership responsibilities in various places across the country. Transitioning Kapisa in the next few months does not mean that French combat forces will be gone, but that there will be a greater effort to have the Afghans out in front, ready or not. Given that other folks have been pushing for the same accelerated calendar, Sarkozy is not that far out of step, even if the announcement was fairly unilateral.
- France is only moving up the schedule one year--out by end of 2013 rather than 2014. Given that the choice of 2014 had little to do with a realistic schedule of progress on the ground but much more to do with political calendars in Kabul (Karzai's second term ends) and in Washington, DC (a promise that could be made before 2012 election), 2013 is just as arbitrary and just as political. Will it make the difference in Sarkozy getting re-elected? Um, maybe.
- The piece cited above also addresses the "who is going to pay for the Afghan security forces" as if this is going to be that hard. Really? I am pretty sure that for the medium-term the big savings that countries will have from not deploying troops to the very distant Afghanistan (or just having far fewer) will more than cover the costs of funding the ANA/ANSF. Explaining to the public that underwriting the Afghans is the price to be paid for leaving without abandoning (unlike the 1990s) will not be that hard, compared to the costs of sticking around. If you asked the average Brit, German, Italian, American or Spainaird, how many troops and how much money were still being dedicated to Kosovo, I doubt that they would have an answer approaching reality. Non-events are non-events. Training would only make news when casualties occur, and $$ spent on the Afghan military will not be a hot political issue.
Does it matter that Sarkozy made this big announcement with only President Karzai in the loop? Certainly. Is it time to panic? No, we should have been panicking (at least, acting like things were uncertain and needed much more attention) in 2002. Sarkozy is just trying to get a comfy spot on the train out of Afghanistan in one of the leading cars. He is certainly not off the tracks at all.