August 19, 2008 – Today, families in the UK, US and France are mourning the death of relatives killed in Afghanistan during tours of duty with UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) mission. The most recent attack against a joint Afghan national army-French paratrooper patrol has left 10 French soldiers dead. The patrol was only 30 miles east of the capital city Kabul, highlighting the increasingly unstable security situation and the Taliban’s brazen confidence. The latest deaths will almost certainly shake resolve within an already nerve-racked Nato alliance.
From the very beginning the international community at large has had a hard time getting its act together in Afghanistan, and Nato is no exception. European countries only became substantially involved in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Germany wanted to remain close to Washington, but would not participate in what Berlin rightly saw as an illegitimate war. So instead, Joschka Fischer, the then foreign minister, argued for an expanded UN-mandated Isaf mission run by Nato. Nato allies piled on in an effort to fight the “good” part of the “war on terror”. But they often did so against domestic public opinion and they by and large failed to appreciate the difficulty of the task at hand.
The French have been some of the most reluctant to get significantly involved and their forces have generally been limited to Kabul. Nicholas Sarkozy, however, wants France to be fully engaged with Nato and to show increased solidarity he very recently dispatched an additional 700 troops to eastern Afghanistan. The problem for Sarkozy and Nato is that the French public was told time and time again by Chirac that the mission in Afghanistan could not succeed. The French public was not enamored with Sarkozy’s decision, which they see as too pro-American. The deaths of 10 soldiers are bound to make things even more complicated.
It is doubtful that France will pull its forces out of Afghanistan in response to the attacks, but Paris may very well limit the exposure of their troops. They may place more caveats on how and when French troops can operate, effectively reducing the efficacy of their deployment. At a time when the US, UK, Dutch and Canadians are pushing for a reduction in caveats such a move would further strain the alliance. Furthermore, both the Dutch and Canadians are looking for allies to come south to prepare for a handover of the mission. The deteriorating security situation will make this already difficult task next to impossible.
Trying to rescue Afghanistan from the hell it has been subjected to as a result of great power and regional politics since the late 18th century was never going to be an easy task. Indeed, the Bush administration did all it could between 2001-2003 to lay the foundations for failure – refusing to put enough troops on the ground, failing to allocate sufficient development funds and knowingly supporting a Pakistani government that deliberately fomented radical Islam in Afghanistan as part of its defence policy vis-a-vis India – these are just a few of the many mistakes that helped land the country where it is today.
Europe, for its part, wandered into an absurdly difficult state-building exercise with the notion that it would not need to fight a war to succeed. Given that pretty much all modern states – including all of Europe – have been born out of war and conflict, this would have been an amazing first. Afghanistan has been essentially dependent on external financial assistance to consolidate central rule since the British formed modern Afghanistan in the 1880s and any useful state structures were destroyed in the Soviet-Afghan war and the Afghan civil war of the 1990s, so the task at hand is immense. To say nothing of those with vested interests in Afghanistan as a failed state such as the warlords and narco-traffickers. No – this was never going to be an easy mission where not one shot was fired. If “success”, defined as an Afghan government strong enough to manage its own turbulent security, is to be achieved, Nato and the rest of the international community need to re-think their approach.
The increasing instability should push Nato to re-evaluate the alliance’s paradoxical role in Afghanistan. The organisation is ostensibly there to promote security, but its preoccupation with force protection remains at odds with this objective. Nato does not actively protect UN and other international aid workers and because it is risk-averse, the alliance is too focused on the use of airpower, resulting in too many civilian casualties. It is an unacceptable situation that undermines international efforts, but in light of recent attacks it will almost certainly worsen.