Remembering the French War in Afghanistan
Jean Michelin, Jonquille Afghanistan, 2012 (Gallimard, 2017)
Following the 9/11 attacks, France quickly expressed its support to the United States. The French daily Le Monde ran the headline “We are all Americans” on the day after the attacks. President Jacques Chirac was the first leader to meet with President George W. Bush a week after the attacks. On several occasions, French politicians declared that they would support the United States, as a matter of solidarity. For example, in front of the French National Assembly in November 2001, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin declared: “If France participates in this conflict, it is not against Afghanistan, but instead because the United States have suffered attacks of a rare violence and, as an ally, France has to side with the Americans.”
Yet, just like so many other NATO countries joining America’s war, French strategic priorities lay somewhere other than Afghanistan. In the French case, missions in Kosovo, Lebanon, or various African countries were bigger priorities, and France struggled to square the circle of displaying solidarity at a minimum cost. This explains the fluctuating military commitment: limited until 2008, ambitious between 2008 and 2012 (when France took responsibility for the Kapisa and Surobi districts) as decision-makers felt they had to match words with deeds after Paris re-joined NATO’s integrated military structure, and limited again after 2012, when President François Hollande declared victory and implemented his campaign pledge to withdraw French “combat troops” from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. The Afghanistan mission was never popular in France, in particular because the political elites failed to create a cohesive narrative: If Afghanistan was not important before 2008, why did it become the main engagement of the French military after that date? Hollande thus decided to align with French public opinion and withdraw French forces. This decision was seen by NATO partners, in particular the United States, as sending a wrong signal, although France tried to paint the withdrawal as the logical step after the regions of Kapisa and Surobi were transferred to the Afghan forces.
Militarily speaking, the French campaign plans fundamentally evolved with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency. He decided to increase the French contribution, with a clear strategic objective: improving the relationship with the United States.
France agreed to take responsibility for the Kapisa and Surobi regions, two small and mountainous areas of a critical strategic importance because of their proximity to both Kabul and the Salang highway. The provinces command access to the northern part of Afghanistan from Kabul, but also to Pakistan through Laghman province to the southeast. Because of its geographic importance, the area was already viciously fought over by the mujahedeen and the Soviets during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The French deployed a brigade in the region, under the command of Regional Command-East. However, because France had earlier refused to participate in the provincial reconstruction team system, the division of labor between Europeans and Americans was turned on its head in Kapisa. While most European countries ran their own provincial reconstruction teams, with American troops providing the main battlefield force after the “surge” (see for example Norway in Faryab or the United Kingdom in Helmand), the opposite happened: An American provincial reconstruction team led governance and development operations while French military forces led security operations.
The campaign in Afghanistan was an important driver of transformation in the French armed forces. The French worked as part of a coalition, adapted to battlefield dangers (for example by re-discovering how to deal with improvised explosive devices), and experimented with new organizational structure such as the Groupements Tactiques Interarmes — combined arms, ad-hoc battlegroups composed of companies and sections drawn from different regiments.
Jean Michelin’s memoirs Jonquille (meaning “Daffodil,” his radio call sign) bring us to the heart of the French combat experience. This beautifully written book is strikingly different from the hero-macho account that has dominated the genre in recent years. As an army captain, Michelin is deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 to command a combat company. He learns about Hollande’s election while arriving at Bagram airbase and quickly understands that the new French president will implement his campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops, a decision that will, of course, define his tour.
Michelin’s company will be the last French troops to hold the Tagab outpost. By the time of his arrival, the French armed forces had already adapted to the Afghan battlefield, a process that arguably began in the aftermath of a 2008 ambush in the Uzbeen valley that took the lives of ten French soldiers, with 21 wounded. This loss, the most significant for French forces since the attack on the Drakkar building in Lebanon in 1983, was a shock to both the French people and their military. By 2012, French troops are quite different from their 2008 counterparts: Equipment has improved, tactics have been developed, and some of Michelin’s soldiers have already been deployed to the area and are battle-hardened, although it is the author’s first tour in the country.
Michelin does a great job at showing the daily military experience of these troops, from sometimes frustrating interactions with commanders and the tension of each mission, to daily life at a forward operating base and the silliness and humor that pervades deployments when the bullets aren’t firing. The author clearly has great respect for the troops under his command, from the private to his fellow officers. Each chapter is named after one of those soldiers, who takes center stage for a few pages. Far from giving the impression of “super-warriors” single-handedly running combat operations, this choice instead highlights how those soldiers are part of an organic whole.
Michelin does not talk about politics, but it is still ever-present, first and foremost because once the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been taken, force protection definitely takes precedence over other operational concerns. The author explains the consequences in various chapters, which together provide a great illustration of one of the central dilemmas of contemporary warfare: how to fight effectively while minimizing casualties. One of the firm tactical constraints imposed on French soldiers is the standing order to avoid any engagement in the “green zone” of the Tagab valley, an area where the vegetation provides ideal cover for the insurgents and which saw intense combat before Michelin’s tour. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the green zone is perceived as a lurking danger threatening the troops. But it generates both fascination and frustration for the soldiers, eager to challenge the enemy and resentful of the limits placed upon their actions. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but I found that Michelin’s discussions of the green zone reminded me of how Julien Gracq portrays Farghestan in his wonderful novel The Opposing Shore (which you should read immediately if you haven’t already).
Politics is also present in showcasing the successes of the Afghan National Army. The French used the increasing capabilities of Afghan troops as a key justification for the withdrawal, both to a domestic audience and especially to allies. But Michelin candidly admits that his troops had very little interaction with Afghan forces, largely due to the rise of “green-on-blue” incidents. He also depicts the anger of his own soldiers when, during an Afghan-led operation that turned into fierce combat with the Taliban, they are ordered not to intervene. Paris was unable to tolerate more soldiers dying.
The book gives interesting insights on several features of Western warfare during the Afghanistan intervention: the importance of airpower for supporting ground troops, the overly burdensome equipment that soldiers have to carry during their operations (at the cost of tactical proficiency), and what it means to be part of a coalition operation as a junior partner to the United States. For French troops, U.S. logistical support is clearly perceived as a luxury, as demonstrated by a short trip to Bagram airfield, which Michelin was encouraged by his superiors to use as an opportunity to relax for a couple of days and enjoy (abuse?) American facilities. The author also alludes to some of the challenges of commanding troops drawn from different regiments and occupational specialties, who are brought together on an ad-hoc basis, which makes operational sense but generates friction and cohesion problems. Micro-cultures of command, planning, or military rituals are resilient, even within the same army. From a sociological perspective, readers may want more details on those episodes, but it is understandable that the author, who still serves in the French armed forces, does not delve deeply here.
Despite the heavy emphasis on force protection, Michelin poignantly recalls the details and the consequences of a suicide attack on June 9 leading to the loss of French soldiers. A Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) team placed under Michelin’s command for this specific mission is targeted, four of its members are killed and some of the author’s soldiers are wounded. Michelin is brutally honest when he recalls the “coward’s relief” he experiences when he understands that the casualties are not soldiers from his company but from the CIMIC team, immediately followed by shame and anger for thinking this. He also recounts the doubts assailing the on-site tactical commander (Michelin’s deputy) who “replays” the mission constantly in his head and questions whether he could have done things differently. The author also reveals the effect of the attack on the soldiers who survived and on the functioning of the company as a fighting unit. One of the most telling moments in the book is when a senior NCO, observing that younger privates don’t seem to fully grasp what just happened, mentions that he wants them to realize that “this is not fucking Call of Duty.”
For those Americans who can read French, the book will be interesting not only for its literary qualities, but also because it gives an insight into the “French way of war” in Afghanistan. Notably, it shows how armed forces with much less logistical support and available means than the U.S. military effectively organize themselves for expeditionary warfare (as also illustrated by France’s subsequent intervention in Mali). But the book is also one of the early signs of what could be evolving civil-military relations in France. It is published in the “Blanche” collection by Gallimard, the most prestigious collection in a country so obsessed with literature that it celebrates the new “literary season” every September. It is also part of a number of recent publications by French soldiers recounting their experience in modern combat, for example Gen. Bernard Barrera in Mali, Maj. Brice Erbland (who also appears in Michelin’s book) in Afghanistan and Libya, or Sgt. Tran Van Can in Afghanistan, among others. This trend follows a revitalization of the French military-strategic debates in the late 2000s, whose main actors have been portrayed by Michael Shurkin, and may be illustrative of a generation which has known combat, but wants to avoid the creation of a “military society” removed from broader social dynamics in France.
Therefore, French speakers should read Jonquille both for its own merits and for its place in the broader context of French civil-military relations. One can only hope that it will eventually be translated into English.
Olivier Schmitt is an Associate Professor at the Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark, and the author of Allies that Count: Junior Partners in Coalition Warfare (Georgetown UP, 2018). He tweets at @Olivier1Schmitt.
Image: French MOD