Gauging France’s Contribution to Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 1/26/2011 · 2 comments

Maj. Gen. Vincent Desportes, a special adviser to the chairman of Panhard General Defense, has a really fascinating feature essay at World Politics Review on the evolution of France’s military in Afghanistan.

The French military understood that tactical effectiveness in the new conflicts such as Afghanistan demands a new style of command and new competencies. Whereas the French army tended to have a tradition of centralized command, it discovered and adopted the concept of “mission command,” borrowed by the British from the Germans, who had themselves borrowed it from . . . Napoleon. The army began to develop initiative at the lower command levels, understanding that this is the only way to adapt to the constantly changing conditions of the Afghan war. It discovered and taught the new tasks of warfare, those of reconstruction and aid to the people. Despite the initial reticence that met these changes, the army succeeded in getting the message across that the profession of soldier had changed and that its social dimensions now play a fuller role.

It found that war is first and foremost a matter of communication, directed toward the population in the theater of operations — but also toward the French people, in the form of news reports. As a result, communication returned to take a central position in military training. The army realized that intelligence had also evolved. Not only were its vectors reversed, now originating principally from below to rise toward the top, but its best receptors became the soldiers themselves, who were therefore trained for this new aspect of their mission.

And so on. I find this so fascinating not just because of who is saying it—Desportes is one of the more innovative thinkers in French military circles—but also because it closely parallels my own thoughts on how France has adapted and, to some extend, succeeded in Afghanistan. A more complete recounting of those thoughts will be out in an edited volume to be published by Routledge a little later this year. Ironically, perhaps, this is part of a feature World Politics Review is running on European challenges in Afghanistan. The other two essays seem to parallel what I’ve heard other European scholars say about their governments’ commitments in Afghanistan as well. So maybe there is an emerging consensus about the clashes of strategic goals, alliance commitments, and tactical imperatives?

Well, one can certainly hope, can’t one.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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M Shannon January 29, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Way back in 2002-3 the French Army was running basic training of the ANA in Kabul across the parade ground from US SF battalions with the same task. It was night and day. The French effort was at least 300% better than the SF. They were trying to train an unit and the Americans were going through the motions.

USSF may be able to train indigenous rifle platoons and companies but they have been a stumbling block in the creation of the ANA with all of the CS and CSS parts that entails. One lesson to take from Iraq and Afghanistan is that SF should not be in the lead for building allied armies.

François January 30, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Talking about the French experience in Afghanistan, you should also read this paper entitled “Caveats to civilian aid programs in COIN. The French experience in Afghanistan”:

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