Afghanistan, Sahel, Syria… Democracies are chalking up one defeat after another. They must rethink their approach.
The USA and France must surely recognize how aptly Machiavelli put it: ”Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.” The wars in Afghanistan and the Sahel – indecisive from a military standpoint, as well as being political failures – have ended in withdrawals that amount to a sort of defeat by Islamism. Afghanistan has once again dug the grave of an empire: it saw the defeat of Britain in the19th century, of the Soviet Union in the 20th, and has now witnessed the failure of the USA in the 21st century. With the withdrawal of American troops, Joe Biden leaves behind a country doomed to civil war.
Eight years after Operation Serval, Emmanuel Macron publicly announced the end of Operation Barkhane on 10th June. The 5,100 French troops engaged in the Sahel will be reduced to 2,500 in early 2023. In a region the size of Europe, they have had some remarkable tactical successes, and dealt a severe blow to the Islamic State in the Great Sahara as well as to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb. And yet, there has been an obvious strategic failure. Jihadism has taken over the whole of Western Africa down to the Gulf of Guinea, destabilizing Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. The legitimacy of the intervention has been undermined by coups d’état in Mali and Chad. And it is illusory to think that Operation Barkhane will transition into the Takuba 2000-strong multilateral force, which would include 500 French soldiers. France is totally isolated from other Europeans, who have no intention whatsoever to engage in a stillborn operation. Also, the war against Jihadism in the Sahel cannot be won because the strength of the radicalized militant groups lies in the weakness and the complicity of certain countries, Mali being the foremost.
Afghanistan and the Sahel are the latest in a long line of wars lost by democracies since the end of the Cold War – Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The only successes have been in Kuwait, the Balkans and Côte d’Ivoire. And the wars are always lost for the same reasons. Military defeat always ensues from political failure, which results from the inability to transform initial successes into economic development and political stabilization. Over-estimating technological supremacy and the ability to rebuild governments or nations goes hand in hand with under-estimating one’s adversary. The latter has the advantage of time, of knowing the land, of growing support from the population, of the decisive support of regional powers like Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan, and even of intervention by the Russian and Turkish démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship] in the case of Syria and Libya.
Democracies in the 21st century now need to redefine their strategy and rethink their attitude to war. Far from being a “Farewell to Arms”, our era is seeing a new rise in violence and threats to freedom, whether they come from Jihadism, totalitarian-capitalism or démocratures. In fact, contrary to the free nations, the authoritarian regimes – such as China with its Great Sea Wall, Russia in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, and Turkey in Syria or in Nagorno-Karabakh – deploy their armed forces extremely effectively, combining an absence of any limit to the use of violence with extremely precise strategy.
Conflicts are spreading into new fields – outer space is being militarized and there are more and more cyber-attacks. Conflicts are also taking increasingly hybrid forms, with public opinion as a priority target for disinformation and interference in the workings of democracy. At the same time, successive defeats in wars and internal crises within free nations destabilized by the Covid epidemic, have resulted in their citizens becoming weary of the issues at stake and the burden posed by external security. In a world that has become dangerous once again, democracies cannot afford to get it wrong when it comes to making war; they get so bogged down in bad wars that they are blind to the wars that are really necessary.
A choice has to be made. Joe Biden is right to prioritize reconciliation within the American nation and the global challenge of China. France, which has specific responsibilities in post-Brexit Europe, must make the most of the platform of the presidential elections to clarify its doctrine and its objectives. The main thrust of the fight against terrorism takes place on the home front with only marginal involvement from the military. The new thrust for our armed forces is not to counter rebellion or to ward off asymmetrical threats as typified by the Sahel, but to respond to hybrid conflicts. This means we have to improve the quality of recruitment, modernize equipment, make up for lost time in terms of drones and robotization of the battlefield, and make the armed forces and society more resilient.
(Article published in Le Point, 15th July 2021)