Democracy in France Complicates Democracy-Building in Afghanistan

Do you need another example of a shrinking world? Check election results in France. Over the weekend, President Nicolas Sarkozy, an irascible right-of-center politician, lost by a whisker to Francois Hollande, a bland, moderate socialist, in the first round of presidential elections, necessitating a run-off election on May 6. Because this is the first time a sitting president has lost in the first round, it’s widely assumed he is going to lose in the run-off too. Et voila!—new President Francois Hollande will represent France at the upcoming NATO meeting in Chicago on May 20, a meeting which focuses on…Afghanistan!

The link between elections in France and democracy-building in Afghanistan is direct and, unfortunately, disrupting. How? Hollande has already made it clear during the campaign that he intends to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year. (Sarkozy also promised to rush the withdrawal of French troops, but not until the end of next year.) A French troop withdrawal, which would likely begin within the next few months, places additional pressure on the Obama administration to consider accelerating its own withdrawal plans. At the moment, they call for a final pullout by the end of 2014 and an end to a combat role sometime in 2013. The White House is keenly aware that a sizeable majority of the American people have now lost heart in the war, considering it a mistake and favoring a rapid withdrawal. Even Republicans share this attitude.

This places President Obama in a box, from which there are no easy exits. He too would like to withdraw from Afghanistan, consistent with his belief, often stated, that nation building ought to begin at home, where there is much to be done but little cash (or appetite) to do it. But to withdraw now would run the risk of losing Afghanistan to another Taliban takeover, such as happened in the mid-1990s. As a liberal Democrat with no military experience at the time of his inauguration, Obama would then be saddled with the onus and responsibility of another American military defeat, similar to the Vietnam defeat in 1975. Bad for him and bad for his party, and 2012 is an election year.

So, what to do? Once again, Obama has chosen to kick the can down the road. As the French went to the polls, American diplomats went to the presidential palace in Kabul and signed a loosely-worded Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, which would commit the United States to Afghanistan’s defense for another ten years at a cost of roughly $2-4 billion a year. The agreement is vague in almost all respects, dependent on side clauses concerning night-time raids and detainee supervision. Yet to be decided are the size and nature of the American military force that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Speculation says the force may be as large as 15,000-20,000. No one is sure.

One aim of this new agreement is to dissuade Kabul’s Taliban foes from thinking that the United States is heading to the nearest exit—that they can simply wait and win. Another aim is to prop up the Kabul regime.

But, for this strategy to work, Afghan military and police are going to have to assume primary responsibility for their own security. This has started, and, of course, this may continue with encouraging benchmarks of success. But, for any number of reasons, the Afghans may fail without substantial American support over a long, frustrating haul.

Question: let us presume for a moment that GOP hopeful Mitt Romney wins the American presidential election later this year. Will he step up the U.S. pullout, or freeze it at current levels? Pursue Obama’s policy, or radically change it? If he chooses the latter, what specifically will he do? Increase troop strength? Widen the war to Pakistan’s border sanctuaries? Will he have the American people and their Congress behind him, if he goes big? Unlikely.

The Afghan War, which started under President George W. Bush, has become Obama’s war. He seems unable to end it or to get out of it; and if he wins in November, what does he do in Afghanistan? Once, during his first presidential campaign, he said that “we must win” in Afghanistan; now he wants only not to lose in Afghanistan. Is that really a policy for a great nation? No, it is not, but it is what we have.