Afghan Lessons for France and for the World

The American Afghanistan fiasco seems to signal the end of the age of costly foreign interventions in faraway places.

President Emmanuel Macron intended to respond to the events in Kabul in a brief televised address on Aug. 16, as he had done before after several international events (for example, after the attack on the Capitol in Washington by Donald Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6.).

After the explosion in Beirut last year (Aug. 4, 2020), Macron’s statement was the second strongly worded summer speech by the leader in the Élysée Palace. He stressed the most immediate concerns, and spoke about measures that were to be taken quickly. On the morning of Aug. 17, a French Airbus A400M and special forces team arrived in Kabul to oversee evacuations.

But as the French president’s address suggested, albeit half-heartedly during his remarks, the moment calls for deeper reflection. First, refection on the trans-Atlantic lessons to be drawn from the Afghan defeat. Then, from a still more global strategic perspective, France’s connection to the war, to military intervention, to our foreign actions.

Imperatives for France

The immediate priority is, of course, to protect French nationals, protection that Macron has extended to those Afghans who worked for France. The scenes of chaos broadcast in recent hours are putting logistics to the test, the situation makes one fear for the security of all, and places the French Embassy (transferred to the airport) under the kind of stress that one can well imagine.

There is another imperative: not to allow Afghanistan to again become a sanctuary from which terrorist operations might be planned, or violent groups might be trained (as it was before September 2001). On this point, naturally, there is not the slightest guarantee. The Taliban are not necessarily interested in challenging American power, which has not diminished in 20 years, and which has been even further increased through the use of more sophisticated long-range strike techniques, notably the use of drones. For now, the Taliban seek to reassure the country, obviously to endure, and perhaps to develop a religious form of governance that is less autocratic than it was two decades ago. But with time, and given the possible differences among various clans, anything can happen, and there’s not much France can do about it.

Finally, there is mention of an anticipated surge of migration. The scenes of panic show that an Afghan exile will go well beyond a brain drain. Floods of migrants are expected, with the multifaceted state-to-state manipulation that generally accompanies these phenomena. After the Syrian episode of 2015, and the difficulties encountered by Angela Merkel, given the way she approached the migration crisis at once humanistically and rationally, we know that in this area, Western leaders have little room to maneuver.

Trans-Atlantic Reflections

The Afghan matter once again raises the question of the purpose of the Atlantic alliance.

Joe Biden spoke moments after Macron’s address. It was a harsh statement, attributing responsibility for the situation to an Afghan government and army incapable of coping with the Taliban despite two decades of generous American aid. It was a speech determined to get America out of wars that it now deems useless. A speech at once frank and cynical, renouncing the responsibility of pleasing others despite themselves or in contrast to the tide of events. A speech explainable from the point of view of American opinion, and logical in light of Washington’s diplomatic-military refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region and on its competition with Beijing. But it was a disturbing speech in the eyes of allied opinion, submerged in images, and of news and dramatic rumors out of Afghanistan.

Given its precipitous departure from Afghanistan and the abandonment of its former local allies, who blamed them, can the United States still pretend that the security guarantees it provides are solid and that its word is reliable?

This question was already sharply posed under Barack Obama’s administration, when he refused to get involved in Syria, as France wished him to do, then regretted publicly having followed Paris in Libya. Under Trump, the abandonment of Kurdish forces who helped fight the Islamic State, and the green light that Washington gave Turkey to pursue the Kurds, also raised the question of confidence in investing in the word of an America which reserved to itself the right to change priorities.

And yet, Biden was clear: there was no question of scattering in Afghanistan at a time when China was threatening. What then of Ukraine, of the Sahel or the Near East? In Asia, Beijing is riding the wave of this bonanza, and has warned Taipei, asking what it will do the day America abandons that country too. This is based on a false argument insofar as there was no treaty of alliance between the United States and the Afghan population, nor indeed, at the time, with the Syrian population. There are, on the other hand, treaties or guarantees that have been mentioned elsewhere, which Washington will be keen on honoring in the interest of strategic credibility. But psychologically, the argument has something unsettling about it.

Elsewhere within NATO, the nuanced responses expressed between allies will be scrutinized, and especially the Turkish position. Beyond that, it will be interesting to follow the attitude of the Saudis or Emiratis, to say nothing of Pakistan. And what will India do? The fall of Kabul may generate a redistribution of loyalties in the play of alliances that America is attempting to put in play against its new peer rival.

Strategic Thinking

But the harshness of the 46th president’s address poses yet another question: that of the external commitment of democracies to the stability of a region or the reconstruction of a nation.

The Afghan fiasco (the almost immediate return to power of those very people that we wanted to drive away 20 years ago and some trillions of dollars earlier) signals the end of an epoch: the epoch opened by the end of the Cold War, then pushed to the point of absurdity by the neoconservative administration of George W. Bush in the 2000s, during which the West hoped to remodel societies, remake world maps and supervise the establishment of good political regimes in someone else’s home country.

Multiple partnerships — often with paternalistic tones, and subject to vexatious conditions — with the new Russia have promoted a sense of humiliation subsequently exploited by Vladimir Putin. After years of engagement with China in the international commerce system, Xi Jinping has consolidated Marxist-Leninist dogma and exploited trade openness, while at the same time putting the lid back on the political game. The punctilious and at times arrogant control by the European Union in verifying that Turkey was advancing correctly on the path traced out for it in order to be considered a worthy candidate (which it never really was), set the stage for the rhetoric of rupture of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moving on to the balance sheet of regime change, Iraq, Libya, support for the Arab Spring … there are so many patent failures. It is not a question of putting political processes — at times well-intentioned, at times self-interested, at times naïve, at times more seriously thought out — on trial. But it’s a matter of noting their failure.

The hope for the emergence of a new political order after a costly foreign intervention and one that required sustained support on the ground has vanished. Firepower remains in order; staying power is beyond reach. Just as, in its time, the British Empire’s withdrawal quickly condemned the French colonial presence, the American failure to recognize contemporary conditions could condemn the logic of any prolonged expedition. France cannot dodge this order in its policies in the Sahel. But others, such as Russia in Syria, would do well to reflect on it too. As there was a Bill Clinton doctrine after Somalia, a Biden doctrine could be a milestone after Afghanistan.

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