Afghanistan, Europe and the Return of War

What a difference a year makes. That’s the gist of this Journal du Dimanche article by Pierre Servent regarding the morale of the French military this Bastille Day compared to the 2008 vintage:

Last year, the army’s morale was as low as its socks: the announcement of drastic manpower cuts, the drama of Carcassonne, the resignation/firing of the army chief of staff, the controversial presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

[. . .]

But what, then, happened between July 14, 2008 and July 14, 2009 to explain this change? One word: Uzbin. (Translated from the French.)

Uzbin is the valley in Afghanistan where 10 French soldiers were killed in an ambush while on patrol in August 2008. The incident was a major national event, and had it not occurred during the August vacation, almost certainly would have had more severe repercussions. French operational rigor and equipment quality were subsequently called into question, and there was some hand-wringing about national resilience in the face of what seemed likely to be elevated casualty levels.

But instead of a collapse of public opinion or military resolve, relations between President Nicolas Sarkozy and his general staff markedly improved, equipment procurement was accelerated, and the armed forces adopted a re-warriorization of what had to that point largely been viewed as a peacekeeping mission.

There are major differences between the French and British experiences in Afghanistan, but parallels exist as well. The British have long been short-changing their troops on equipment, with morale suffering as a result. And British forces have recently sustained significant casualties. Strikingly, the general staff is calling on Prime Minister Brown to increase troop deployments as a result. (SWJ has a UK press rundown here.) Brown has so far deflected those calls, but they reveal the resilience of the UK general staff. On the other hand, Brown’s reticence to double down in the face of pressure from both his own generals and the Obama administration reveals the political fragility of the war.

The same dynamic is echoed in Germany, where Der Spiegel (via James Joyner) offers a peek into the political-military calculus in Berlin. Apparently, the restrictive rules of engagement governing German troops in Afghanistan have been significantly relaxed to permit for more aggressive — i.e. war-like — operations, with more relaxations to come. The key hitch is that the shift was carried out without informing parliament, even as legislators were busy raising the permissible ceiling on deployed troops.

The common thread here is that Afghanistan is affecting a major shift in the tactical posture of our key European allies’ militaries, signaling a return to warfare, as opposed to peacekeeping. Jean-Dominique Merchet flagged a recent article by a French officer to the same effect, and although I haven’t had a chance to go through it in detail, this Justin Kelly article in the Australian journal Quadrant (via SWJ) makes a similar argument — from an Australian perspective — regarding security/kinetic operations in counterinsurgency, versus the now-dominant “hearts and minds” school of thought.

At the same time that the American strategic culture has become “Europeanized” as a result of Iraq, the European strategic culture has become “Americanized” as a result of Afghanistan.

In other words, for all the well-deserved criticisms that have been made of ISAF’s incoherence, the impact of six years of joint warmaking has left the American and European militaries more interoperable than perhaps 60 years of formal alliance. That shift has not yet made its way into the political posture, either in terms of civilian policymakers or public opinion. And it might not have come in time to salvage the Afghanistan operation.

But two things are almost certain. Any future joint operations will be much more skeptically examined before being undertaken. And they will be much more effective once deployed.

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