France, Afghanistan and the Price of Ambition

Apparently whoever blogs for the Economist found this Dan Drezner post a bit heavy on the French-bashing, too. (Drezner’s response here.) To be fair to Drezner, French Defense Minister Hervé Morin’s flat-out rejection of any troop increases in Afghanistan on the day after President Obama was sworn in was uncharacteristically clumsy. Morin’s a very savvy and articulate politician whose tenure as Defense Minister won me over despite the fact that he stabbed François Bayrou in the back to get it, and I’m sure that he’s already gotten an earful from Nicolas Sarkozy.

Drezner also pointed out some of the public opinion constraints on European troop increases, to which I’d add the financial constraints. France, for instance, already has 13K troops deployed in OpEx (opérations extérieures, or overseas operations), at a cost last year of $1.1 billion. That would translate to roughly 65K American troops based on relative population, and $24 billion on relative GDP, about what the U.S. budgeted for the Afghanistan War yearly from 2001-2006 (spending jumped in the past two years), and double the highest level of U.S. troop commitment to date (30K additional U.S. troops are soon to be deployed).

Most of these OpEx are multilateral peacekeeping missions essential to regional stability (UNIFIL Lebanon, EUFOR Chad and CAR on the Darfur border), where the U.S. would have difficulty deploying for either political reasons or due to being overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a lot of the reason why EU defense, after being dismissed for years, has suddenly come into favor in Washington is because, quite simply, there aren’t enough U.S. troops to go around for all the conflict zones that need them.

But the U.S. is hardly alone in being overstretched at the moment. France’s OpEx budget is already being cannibalized from its much-needed equipment modernization budget. The latter, in turn, had already been tightened in last year’s Defense White Paper, and that was before the global financial meltdown. When last year’s increase of 700 French troops to Afghanistan was being floated, the French Chief of Staff went so far as to express his hostility to the idea publicly, citing among other things the stress it would place on France’s already stretched expeditionary capacity.

The situation across the Channel is even worse, with high-ranking members of the British command calling publicly for judicial inquiries into the life-threatening equipment deficiencies faced by British troops in Afghanistan.

All of this, meanwhile, is in the context of longstanding European objections to the way in which the Afghanistan nation-building mission’s military component often came at the cost of a meaningful reconstruction component.

Now, Nicolas Sarkozy has been very ambitious about France’s and Europe’s global profile, and a lot of that ambition has been expressed in terms of EU defense and the deployment of French troops to high-profile conflict zones. And the price of ambition is responsibility, a word that almost always comes with dollar (or euro) signs before it and zeros after.

But the reality of European resistance to an escalation in Afghanistan is much more complex than American caricatures which focus on public opinion (which certainly is lacking) or the willingness and courage to fight (which certainly is not). So before President Obama decides to go to that well, he might want to make sure there’s some water left in it.

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