How France Lost in Afghanistan

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by Joshua Foust on 6/18/2012 · 6 comments

Earlier today, insurgents in Kapisa province detonated a bomb, killing six people:

The blast in Kapisa province was the second deadly attack in less than two weeks, following on the heels of a suicide bombing that killed four French troops on June 9. That prompted France’s new president, Francois Hollande, to declare that the French withdrawal would begin next month…

Kapisa is on the latest list of Afghan provinces and towns where Afghan forces are meant to be taking over fighting duties from NATO troops. The transfer of security responsibilities is a key element of the Western exit strategy, and insurgents in the past made a point of stepping up attacks in the designated “transition” areas, seeking to raise doubts that Afghan police and soldiers will be able to keep order and fight off the Taliban.

France’s expedited timeline for withdrawal was also the subject of my column for PBS last week:

The early French withdrawal from Kapisa will create a security vacuum just outside of Kabul. This is no small matter: the “ring of steel” that surrounds Afghanistan’s capital has been broken so many times that few have faith in the capital’s safety anymore. Furthermore, many of those attacks are the work of the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group closely affiliated with the Taliban and headquartered in Pakistan. Several of those early attacks, before the influx of French troops, were planned and supported out of the Tagab Valley, in Kapisa Province. The French presence there had reduced the ability of militants in Kapisa to launch attacks into Kabul. When the French leave, the U.S. won’t have the troops to fill in the gap, leaving a big opportunity for militants north of Kabul to strike back.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, for U.S. policymakers. Ambition has its place in warfare, but only if it can be backed up by commitment. While the U.S. has certainly been ambitious in Afghanistan it has never really committed to the war or to its success – and that is why it has faced such disappointment and frustration. It is also why, in 18 months, whoever the next president is will be doing exactly what François Hollande is doing now: withdrawing and trying to move on.

I wish I could say this is a terrible surprise, but it really isn’t. Three years ago, when I was writing in this space from my deployment with the French military in Kapisa, we could all see much the same thing happening. It’s not surprising, but it is a deep, bitter disappointment. No one cared enough to try to set things right, and now it’s crumbling into disaster.

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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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Jeremy Kotkin June 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Are you insinuating that the French should ‘stay the course’….forever….in Kapisa? As your example from Alasay in the PBS piece shows, COIN in Afghanistan is a no-go – was and always will be. The Afghans – ostensibly who we assume will pick up the fight for us when we leave – will sit on their fence like they have for the past 30 years. We know GIRoA won’t hold anything we clear with governance or development programs, and the ANSF certainly won’t, so why are you knocking the French from finally waking up from their ‘sunk-cost’ stupor? Frankly, I’m surprised that it took them this long and that other countries haven’t joined suit. That they decided to unilaterally stop playing a pansy to the US’s demands in Afghanistan for NATO should be commendable. They’ve finally decided that the only ‘decent interval’ they’ll accept is ASAP — unlike us who think if we just keep up the good fight, GIRoA will magically be able to win over the populace and the world will come around to seeing how prescient and philanthropic we really were. Hollande is the only leader of state with a backbone. A peppering of French troops won’t save Kapisa and a surge-full of US troops won’t save Afghanistan…..from itself. France didn’t lose anything except their self-esteem for letting themselves think we could dictate what their vital interests are. We tried that before and they jumped the NATO ship. Sounds like we’re intent on trying to force their hand again. It’s not a terrible surprise but it’s not the French’s fault, domestic politics or otherwise.

Joshua Foust June 19, 2012 at 2:12 pm


Far from it. Rather, France had the opportunity to do well in Kapisa and it chose not to — through a combination of under-resourcing and lack of care. That they’re leaving now is appropriate, and I kind of want to say “good riddance” given how poorly they’ve managed the place.

But to call it anything other than a defeat is, I think, wrong. France lost. I am explaining how they lost.

Jeremy Kotkin June 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm

But “lost” assumes one could have “won” as a third-party in someone else’s counterinsurgency with an untenable and corrupt host-nation government. Or doesn’t that matter in the pop-centric COIN AAR narrative anymore. Could France have “won?” Could we have won? France “could have done well” in Kapisa up until 31 Dec 2014 and the writing is on the wall for what happens the day after. I just don’t think it’s fair to blame the French policymakers or military for losing Kapisa. If you’re looking for someone to blame, look to the ones who are calling the shots – it’s a pretty straight and obvious line from HQ ISAF to DoD and across the river from there but it’s not the French. The only way to not have ‘lost’ in Afghanistan is….as my favorite thermonuclear-wielding computer used to say….”the only winning move is not to play.”

Joshua Foust June 20, 2012 at 4:31 am

Jeremy, I am not endorsing Pop-centric Coin. Far from it. There was nothing inherent to the French loss and ISAF’s rolling defeat in the country. That was the result of unjustifiable ambition and inattention. Limited goals, focused institutional support, and a teeny tiny bit of humility could have achieved the same effect we have now only without the humiliation of hundreds of thousands of troops running away and maybe a more functional government.

But France made its own decisions without ISAF dictating policy to them. This isn’t a bad thing per se – it’s the nature of coalition warfare sometimes – so while I share your anger and frustration at ISAF a lot of it also goes to France as well. They played because they felt they should, because of NATO and because of 9/11 (and because they wanted to be more “respectable” as a military power). But they never really tried. So they deserve blame as well.

F de St Victor June 28, 2012 at 6:49 am

A response to this op-ed by two French research fellows and milbloggers “Has France lost Afghanistan?”

KHAN July 13, 2012 at 1:29 am


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