France’s Domestic Afghanistan War

A quick word on today’s vote by the French Parliament to extend the mission in Afghanistan, which for political reasons was never in doubt. The vote comes in the aftermath of the Taliban ambush last month that left ten French soldiers dead, an ambush that has had a very long media trail here in France. Immediately after the shocking news, gruesome rumors circulated about the circumstances surrounding the soldiers’ deaths, rumors that the authorities were very slow to respond to. Soon thereafter, Paris Match published photos of the Taliban who had been involved in the ambush, provoking a storm of indignation.

Then followed a steady stream of leaked after-action reports reports (some from internal French army sources, some from within the NATO chain of command, and some of contested origin and authenticity) as well as commentary by informed French military leaders (some retired, some anonymous active duty officers), all of which called into question the level of the troops’ battle preparedness, command competence, and equipment. The latest is a controversial and damning “report” obtained by Canada’s Globe and Mail whose authenticity was initially denied by NATO headquarters, only to be later acknowledged by French Defense Minister Hervé Morin (once it’s existence was confirmed by France 24) to be an informal and non-definitive after-action account in the form of an email.

Now, in many ways, the way in which the conflict is playing out in the French press is illustrative of the way in which public opinion becomes a “center of gravity” in asymmetric warfare. NATO forces can’t beat the Taliban in battle because the Taliban fade into the landscape when we try to engage them, and they can’t beat us because of our superior capacity. So they target our forces in ways meant to have the most impact on public opinion, while Western governments try to manage the news as best they can to minimize its impact.

And by most measures, the French government has handled this media operation very, very poorly. Jean-Dominique Merchet — who covers defense and national security for Libération, and whose blog Secret Défense is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject — excoriated the French authorities in a post two weeks ago, pointing to the majestic ceremony to commemorate the dead soldiers at Les Invalides and the decision to bring their families to Kabul as examples of how the government risked letting a response governed by emotion undermine the nation’s resilience in the face of the war.

But the way in which the after-action reports have been leaked out to the press also has to be understood in the broader context of Nicolas Sarkozy’s very strained relations with the French military leadership. It’s no coincidence that today’s vote was accompanied by an announcement that France would be sending more helicopters, surveillance drones and artillery to reinforce its combat support capabilities. According to the widely emerging consensus about how the ambush took place, that’s exactly the kind of equipment and capability the ambushed units lacked.

It’s also no secret that the French army brass was very skeptical of Sarkozy’s decision to increase France’s engagement in Afghanistan, with doubts about the Army’s ability to deploy well-equipped, battle-hardened troops in light of its heavy operational commitments to a variety of multilateral stability and peacekeeping operations. I’ve already noted on a number of occasions the fact that the French forces deployed to Afghanistan were equipped in haste and urgency with armored troop carriers lifted from its Southern Lebanon peacekeeping contingent, as well as through purchases of second-hand equipment from American and other foreign military contractors.

So while France’s media front in the Afghanistan War is in many ways a classic example of the information battlefield of asymmetric warfare, it’s also become one of the last resorts of a military leadership that’s straining to catch the ear of its commander-in-chief.